Delightful disorder is the mark of a truly great museum

The Dome Area at Sir John Soane Museum.
SIR JOHN SOANE MUSEUM

The Dome Area at Sir John Soane Museum.

Here is a thought that has never entered my mind when I've visited the British Museum: this place could do with a good clear out.

News that the museum's latest director intends to reduce the number of objects on display has therefore left me cold. Dr Hartwig Fischer, who came to the role from Germany last year, suggests that exhibiting fewer pieces will help visitors "to take things in". I am not convinced.

Are we really so easily overwhelmed? There can't be many who blanch at the sight of an overstuffed display case. One of the thrills of visiting a museum is the potential to spot something no one else does. A quirky spoon tucked behind a teapot. The signature on the back of a Greek vase. Remove objects - Dr Hartwig plans to cull about 4,000 - and you take away the visitor's opportunity to have a unique and serendipitous experience. If there are only 10 artworks in a room, then you're stuck with seeing the same as everyone else.

Soane's Model Room.
SIR JOHN SOANE MUSEUM

Soane's Model Room.

Minimalism isn't even very accessible. Stroll past the boutiques of London's Sloane Street and you'll see there are barely half a dozen items of clothing on each rail. Browsing them makes you feel terribly exposed - and not just because everything costs a fortune. Curiously enough, Sir Hans Sloane, the man who gave his name to this street, seems to have understood how much easier it is to lose yourself in a crowded room than in an empty one. He was the founder of the British Museum. It was his diverse array of more than 70,000 objects that formed the basis of the collection.

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In Sloane's day, art was often displayed in glorious disorder. Europe had witnessed the emergence of the "cabinet of curiosity", a precursor to the modern museum, which wealthy collectors filled with eclectic objects. During the Renaissance, Italian dukes had developed a passion for private studies brimming with paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts. There's barely an inch of free wall space in the little Medici study-gallery preserved in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Yet being inside it is less bamboozling than it is invigorating.

Sir John Soane's Museum in London is still more densely packed. An 18th-century architect and collector, Soane loaded the shelves and walls of his house-cum-museum with classical masonry, models, paintings, and prints. The organised chaos of his collection remains as he intended it - and is a sheer delight.

No doubt Dr Hartwig's plans, which are less Eurocentric and include unifying the Egyptian collection (currently spread over two stories), make a kind of dry, unsentimental sense. Rationalising the displays and stripping down the number of objects in glass cases will certainly lead to a more thematic perspective. But museums require mystery and magic too. However much we covet pared down, stripped-back homes, museums are not the places for fashionable de-cluttering. Herr Hartwig must restrain his inner organiser and trammel the temptation to tidy up.

The fad for minimalism is an attempt to impose order on our unruly lives. But the truth is that our lives are unruly, which is why the best and most faithful way to discover the past is to be immersed in all its wonderful chaos.

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 - The Telegraph, London

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