Encore Theatre Magazine
:: Thursday, July 13, 2006 ::
The announcement last year that the V&A were going to end their support for the Theatre Museum raised howls of protest. We Encoreans were less concerned. A new plan has been hatched by the chairman of National Heritage, James Bishop, to rehouse the Museum's collections in either the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington or a disused power station in Greenwich. It's not yet known what the relationship is between this plan and the ongoing talks with the Royal Opera House to keep the Covent Garden site open but merge its collections with the ROH's archives.
Look, it's a good idea to have a museum dedicated to the performing arts in London, one of the world's great theatre cities. A good idea. But the Theatre Museum itself is a fucking awful museum. It's airless, cluttered, inert; it wanders through theatre history without any sense of why we might want to know about this stuff. You need to be pretty clued up about the main lines of development already to understand what you're looking at. It seems frozen in the 1970s-style of museology. Lots of stuff in glass cabinets, no interactivity, no active engagement of the visitors, no possibility of finding your own routes through it. It's true that the Museum had been campaigning for a total redevelopment. But who ever thought that was realistic, when the current managers of the site seem to have no vision of what to do with what they already have? And the name. There is something about 'theatre museum' as a phrase that makes me cringe; the backward-looking dustiness of 'museum' seems to leave its cobwebbed traces all over the word theatre. If the Theatre Museum is saved, please let it be reopened as the London Theatre Centre or something that makes you feel it's dealing with a living artform.
The museum could be separated from its research collection. You may know the the museum was founded on a bequest by eccentric theatre buff, Gabrielle Enthoven. She kept enormous scrapbooks of theatre cuttings, programmes and other memorabilia which has been supplemented and kept up to date. However, (a) this has not been done in a consistent way, (b) the organisation of the collection is unsystematic and sometimes quixotic, (c) a vast amount of the current collection is uncatalogued, so, for all practical purposes, inaccessible to researchers, actors, writers, anyone who might want to delve into the theatre archive to inform them about contemporary work.
Where the collection is housed is an important question (though, as I understand it, the research collections were never themselves under threat), but real money needs to be found to get in proper curators and cataloguers, who can make those stacks of papers into the precious theatrical resource that they could be.
Plans for the Museum's future are apparently due to be announced in September.