GRIFF RHYS JONES
‘Outside the museum were whole streets of salvaged houses; I’ll go a long way to see that’
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 telegraph.co.uk/ 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