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Too Many Bison: Infantilising Museums – Scottish Review of Books
by Lucy Ellmann

Too Many Bison: Infantilising Museums

March 28, 2013 | by Lucy Ellmann

My husband and I made our way from Edinburgh to London for the launch, on Valentine’s Day, of my new novel, Mimi – a sort of romance based in New York but written mainly in Orkney. This happened to coincide with ‘One Billion Rising’, a worldwide mass action against male violence, organized by Eve Ensler. I thought of going to the rally at Westminster myself but was scared of being kettled and missing my launch party! I also had reservations about the usefulness of this global stunt (reservations mainly to do with the American flavour of it all, and the use of dancing as a form of protest). But Ensler’s project did at least give women across the world a sense of camaraderie, if only for a day. Nik Williams, a friend who works for ‘Peace One Day’ (a global movement set on enshrining at least one day of peace a year: September 21st), was there and reported back that it was a lively event, featuring for instance a banner that said, ‘BIG SISTER IS WATCHING YOU’.

It’s a start, but is it enough? I’m not convinced pointing at the sky with an index finger (the One Billion Rising’s chosen hand gesture) and copying American dance moves are really going to change things fast enough. The One Billion Rising protests got very little coverage in the British papers, which were devoted instead to Oscar Pistorius’s alleged murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp – who herself had recently tweeted about her opposition to violence against women. Women speak out, women dance, and none of it stops the violence.

What we need is a local, national or global strike every time a woman is raped or murdered. Withhold our labour, and governments would soon be forced to reduce violence and resolve war.

As Carlos Fuentes said in a talk on Don Quixote at Edinburgh University’s Playfair Library in June, 2005 (I’m paraphrasing): ‘Fiction is fiction and power is power. Art and literature can change things, but only over a long period of time.’ Much as he wanted the pen to overwhelm the sword, he felt we should be realistic about its chances. Still, I object to things best when sitting down – at my typewriter – and in Mimi I provide a very simple solution to violence against women, something even simpler than a strike. And more peaceful.

* * *

One of the inspirations for my novel was Catherine Blackledge’s book, The Story of V (2003), which examines female genitalia from a biological point of view. She points out that the vagina is instrumental in selecting sperm for procreative use. This means that, to ensure their genes survive, males, from fruit flies to humans, must strive to please females as best they can. Most mating is not rape, despite what Andrea Dworkin said, but the outcome of courtship, perhaps even love. Porn has helped us forget this, but nature prioritizes female pleasure, not male. Maybe this is the real reason for our continuing absorption in the female nude. Prehistoric relics too suggest that femaleness was honoured in art and ritual for tens of thousands of years. This satisfactory status quo was ruined by the invention of lethal weaponry in the Bronze Age.  Men then had new powers and new games to play. Tired of venerating women and nature, men stole the show, and look what a mess they’ve made of things.

A second influence on my book was the work of Marija Gimbutas, the Lithuanian archaeologist who developed a comprehensive theory about the art of Old Europe’s ‘gynocentric’ matriarchal cultures, in which violence played very little part. Instead of war, these stable, socialistic societies devoted themselves to more beneficial pursuits like calendar-making, astronomy, botany, horticulture, and the arts. As Gimbutas writes in The Language of the Goddess (1989):

‘I do not believe, as many archaeologists of this generation seem to, that we shall never know the meaning of prehistoric art and religion. Yes, the scarcity of sources makes reconstruction difficult…but the religion of the early agricultural period of Europe and Anatolia is very richly documented. Tombs, temples, frescoes, reliefs, sculptures, figurines, pictorial painting, and other sources need to be analysed from the point of view of ideology.’

From semi-abstract objects depicting breasts or vulvas, to spirals, zigzags and all kinds of animal forms, Gimbutas meticulously studied artifacts until they began to fit a pattern. She had detected a fathomable culture, and a cult of goddess-worship that lasted for thousands of years. Art was paramount. Of course. What else have we ever done that’s of any worth but art, music, dance and literature? It’s even better when they all come together in the form of opera! Opera features in my novel too, and at the launch we sipped martinis while three people from OperaUpClose performed extracts from Puccini. Even I, an introvert, loved that party.

* * *

The British Museum’s latest show offers a rare chance to see some of the types of sculpture Gimbutas was talking about. Its peculiar title, ‘Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind’, instantly reminded me of Robert Benchley’s reaction to a caption under a picture of ancient Egyptian art: ‘Remarkably Accurate and Artistic Painting of a Goose…Drawn 3300 Years Ago’. ‘Why’, Benchley asked (in My Ten Years in a Quandary, 1947), ‘is it any more remarkable that someone drew a goose accurately 3300 years ago than that someone should do it today? Why should we be surprised that the people who built the Pyramids could also draw a goose[?]… They may not have known about chocolate malted milk and opera hats, but, what with one thing and another, they got by. And, presumably, every once in a while somebody felt like drawing a goose.’

The commentary on the walls of the BM exhibition expresses a similar confusion in the face of art created long ago. The whole show is pervaded by a profound and unthinking wonderment. Perplexity seems to be the main aim here, not elucidation. Perplexity and money. Who after all has the right to claim ownership of prehistoric artifacts? The BM is raking it in with this show. Elsewhere in the museum you can see three eggs in a little pot (an Anglo-Saxon grave offering), and it’s free!

We woke early and rushed to our timed, £10-ticket, moment at the BM – all to be squashed into a tiny gallery with hundreds of other people trying to peer at dimly-lit bits of mammoth ivory or reindeer horn. It was like Lenin’s tomb in there: funereal, chaotic and weird. To add atmosphere, there was a flickering light under one bison sculpture, and a heavily amplified drip-drip sound throughout the exhibition, as if we were all in a cave together. Did prehistoric people never go outside? And there were too many bison. Inspired by them, the people with headphones kept bulldozing us out of the way so that they could reach the stuff the audiotapes were ordering them to view.

The curators’ remarks on the labels were full of idiocies. Not a mention of vulvas, nor of Gimbutas and the whole system of symbols she so forcefully delineated. Just a lot of infantile talk about how much time Ice Age artists spent making these things. It took four hundred hours to produce the Lion Man, thirty-five to do a horse, etc. The label for an implement reverently designated ‘The Spoon’ explained that its design ‘suggests the object did have a use’. Yeah, as a spoon! And everywhere we were reminded that these artists had human brains. Thanks. One statement would have driven Benchley wild: ‘The combination of human and animal features shows the capability to imagine something that does not exist. Through this invention the artist expressed ideas rather than the real world. This required a creative mind.’ Why all this surprise about signs of intelligence in prehistory? WE’RE the lame brains. 

Scattered around were a few pieces of twentieth-century art – Matisse, Henry Moore, Käthe Kollwitz, Mondrian – but nobody was looking at them and their relevance did seem obscure.  Matisse had apparently been dragged in to echo the ancient interest in women’s bodies, Kollwitz for a suggestion of motherhood, Mondrian and Moore for grid patterns and abstraction. It was hard to estimate exactly how many people were being patronised here, but they included at the very least Matisse, Kollwitz, Moore and Mondrian, along with prehistoric artists, the twenty-first-century goops who bought timed tickets for a show they could barely squeeze themselves through, and children, at whom the whole thing seems to be aimed. (Proof of which came with the dinosaur toys in the gift shop.)

They’ve dumbed down the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street the same way. This powerhouse, once full of Scot-land’s design heritage, used to be a miniature version of the V & A; now it’s just an amusement arcade, a caricature of a museum, a kiddy fun park. (Contradictorily, they even got rid of the goldfish, which were universally liked.) Why can’t children be exposed to the adult world once in a while, in which art is adequately displayed and labelled? Soon there’ll have to be a roller-coaster in the Sis-tine Chapel. In being kid-friendly, museums are art-unfriendly, and that’s ultimately bad for kids too.

What’s worse is the BM’s disrespectful treatment of prehistoric female-centred art. ‘The oldest portrait of a woman’ was considered noteworthy mainly for the supposed abnormality of one of her eyelids. (We couldn’t see anything wrong with it!) Elsewhere, sculptures of women were described in the hollow terms familiar to our brutish age. The curators had helpfully evaluated the assembled female forms for us in terms of their attractiveness. Some of the female figures are young, so presumably attractive; others are mothers, of therefore dubious attractiveness; and others older and not attractive at all. This tells us more about our own banality and poverty of imagination – our ‘modern minds’ – than it does about the culture from which these pieces came. It’s like getting a paedophile to assess putti.

Finally, we came on a film of cave paintings that they jazzed up by projecting it onto a piece of awkwardly-draped cloth, to imitate the curves of a cave wall. Added to this magic lantern show were some modernistic flashing white lines, unexplained. Everything there served to distract you from the real beauty and artistry of these crowded objects, which included some great horses, breasts on sticks, and one smooth, plump female backside. A billion women should rise up against these inane interpretations of their genuine and essential prehistory.

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