Visual Art Takes Backseat As London Museums Pump Up The Volume

Eyeballs are evidently obsolete. It’s not enough to simply look at art in order to absorb it anymore: this week has brought news that many of the major museums and galleries are catering to additional senses to supplement our appreciation of their collections.

Read: to get us to pay attention for anything other than our phones for five seconds. First was the National Gallery’s exhibition Soundscapes which commissioned various contemporary musicians to create musical responses to selected paintings. Next, the British Museum announced that it will be incorporating digital technology to its boring old glass cases, allowing visitors not just to look at a medieval goblet, but to step into a three dimensional digital projection and see said medieval goblet in its imagined historical habitat, mud and warring peasants included, presumably. It’ll be just like Game of Thrones! Perhaps the system will come with its own selfie capabilities, Alton Towers style.

Also on the bandwagon is Tate Britain’s announcement of its Sensorium: a project that will match works with tastes, smells and sounds. I wonder if the Bacon sandwich will come with HP sauce (mmm Pope flavour)? It will bring in master chocolatiers and other artisans to supply goodies, which smacks of the recent Leighton House show of Pre-Raphaelites in which Alma-Tadema’s Roses of the Heliogabalus was displayed in a room filled with the cloying aroma of roses, which probably did more for the florist’s business than our comprehension of this complex piece.

Tate’s project is the winning entry of its annual IK Prize, conceived to devise new ways to use technology to “widen the reach of British art”: read, “Penelope Curtis did some weird stuff, we seriously need punters through the door.” It’s not clear how involved with the project the incoming director, Alex Farquharson, may be, but what’s clear is that many of the directors leaving the big museums (National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern etc.) are leaving at a point when funding is scarce and audiences are harder to engage than ever. Indeed, in Nicholas Penny’s latter interviews he was clearly hardly involved with the Soundscapes exhibition, despairing of blockbusters in general and lamenting how the benches in the galleries are mainly used by texting teenagers. It’s not enough to just stand and look anymore. Such is the pervasive death of imagination and pandering to bored tourists’ wallets that even in Rome the Colosseum is being rebuilt (i.e. given a recreated floor) for an eight figure fee. 

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