‘Out­side the mu­seum were whole streets of sal­vaged houses; I’ll go a long way to see that’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page - GRIFF RHYS JONES

Oh, so now we have more than one “civil­i­sa­tion” do we? Gosh, thanks BBC. The oth­ers have al­ways been there, of course – usu­ally in “folk” or “eth­nic” mu­se­ums: the ne­glected first cousins of “proper” art mu­se­ums and worth fer­ret­ing out.

Aca­demics in ex­cel­lent places like the Welt­mu­seum in Vi­enna al­most pre­fer that their stuff should be scrupu­lously anony­mous, just as ev­ery­thing in an art mu­seum must be “at­trib­uted”. In­deed, if the na­tional gal­leries of the world can’t claim a work is an iden­ti­fi­able, cer­ti­fied, au­then­ti­cated and uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged prod­uct of a sin­gu­lar, named ge­nius, out it goes. Folk mu­se­ums want the op­po­site – an unattributed prod­uct of a group or type. Anon. Para­dox­i­cal, isn’t it?

The Sovi­ets were big on this sort of thing. Ar­riv­ing in St Pe­ters­burg, I was keen to get to an ex­hi­bi­tion of tribal trap­pings that some poor pro­fes­sor had been sent to ac­cu­mu­late in the Twen­ties dur­ing a state-in­duced famine. They were as­ton­ish­ingly rare and very beau­ti­ful. My sort of stuff.

The ap­peal was that each sad­dle cloth, tent door, don­key blan­ket and ex­quis­ite rug was unique to each tribe: hand-knot­ted with in­fi­nite care, sub­tly dif­fer­ent. Dark in­di­gos and mad­der reds cre­ated the sort of lux­u­ri­ous foot mat brought home by In­dian Army brigadiers in Vic­to­rian times. Mmm.

Deal­ers spe­cial­is­ing in “prim­i­tive art” ac­tively seek masks or im­ple­ments im­ported by mis­sion­ar­ies or colo­nial­ists (or brigadiers) be­fore the Twen­ties. Af­ter that, fakes ap­par­ently dis­tort the mar­ket. Re­cently (it was whis­pered) an en­tire col­lec­tion of carved eth­nic trea­sures from the Far East, ac­cu­mu­lated at huge cost and do­nated to a mu­seum, were car­bon dated as a mat­ter of course. It was dis­cov­ered that all of it had been made in the past 20 years and ar­ti­fi­cially aged by bury­ing it – and they threw it out. See? Not au­then­ti­cally “anon”.

With the gen­uine stuff, it’s hard to know how highly it was val­ued in the past. Cap­tain Cook’s crew bartered for sou­venirs right across the Pa­cific, of­fer­ing so many nails in re­turn that their ships started fall­ing apart. On the other hand, they threw some of their lovely trin­kets over­board to make room for new “cu­riosi­ties”.

These ob­jects re­main as en­chant­ing to­day as they were to those first-contact ex­plor­ers. They are not just cu­riosi­ties; they are gor­geous. In Paris, at the Musée de Quai Branly-Jac­ques Chirac, they are more open about them as “art”; Pi­casso, Braque and Matisse pro­vided a stamp of author­ity. The same is true at the ci­tadel Musée de la Cas­tre, up on the hill in Cannes. In Bri­tain, the Pitt Rivers Mu­seum in Ox­ford re­flects a Bri­tish ob­ses­sion with evo­lu­tion and cat­a­logu­ing, while the Sains­bury Cen­tre in Nor­wich is a de­light – com­bin­ing the anony­mous and the at­trib­uted. The Horn­i­man should get you on the Over­ground to For­est Hill, too, to see its Benin bronzes.

But it’s not just arte­facts. Out­side at the Norsk Folke­mu­seum in Oslo are whole streets of sal­vaged houses. These days, con­ser­va­tion­ists are wary of up­root­ing en­tire build­ings like this and gath­er­ing them in mis­matched dis­plays. Far bet­ter to leave them in situ, they say. Not sure why, when the situ can change so rad­i­cally.

In Oslo there were streets of black wooden Nor­we­gian farm build­ings, a beau­ti­ful stave church and sev­eral charm­ing clap­board school­rooms, all gath­ered in one in­stal­la­tion. It’s not au­then­tic. It’s cer­tainly not cor­rect. It’s just stim­u­lat­ing. I was there with Mrs Jones tramp­ing about in the snow, and I was a lit­tle cross that so many of the places were closed and only vis­i­ble from out­side. Not so in our own mu­se­ums. The Weald and Down­land in Sus­sex is good, but St Fa­gan’s near Cardiff is su­perla­tive.

On a wet, still morn­ing with wood smoke ris­ing through the trees from the farm houses ar­ranged through the for­est, with their in­te­ri­ors in­au­then­ti­cally sparse, with the stone cot­tages and limed walls, there can be few places as peace­ful, spir­i­tual, sat­is­fy­ingly apt and lovely as this wholly ar­ti­fi­cial con­cep­tion. It’s an art “in­stal­la­tion” on the high­est scale – and it’s cer­tainly worth a de­tour.

To read more of Griff ’s travel writ­ing, see tele­ travel/team/griff-rhys-jones

Cap­tain Cook’s crew of­fered so many nails for trin­kets that their ships started fall­ing apart

The Pitt Rivers Mu­seum in Ox­ford

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