Edinburgh. Toys. Pram. Etc.

The 'Turd', a.k.a. the proposes St James's hotel by Jestico and Whiles

The ‘Turd’, a.k.a. the proposed St James’s hotel by Jestico and Whiles

Well, it’s been an interesting couple of days, you might say. An early morning start on Radio 4’s Today on 12th September, where along with the urbane Adam Wilkinson of Edinburgh World Heritage, we debated the city’s UNESCO World Heritage status. That status is perceived by some in the heritage business of being under threat, from the city council’s negligence on the one hand, and development on the other. Adam and I agree on a good deal, as it happens, and the atmosphere in the studio was amiable. I suggested, playfully, that losing UNESCO’s approval wouldn’t greatly matter: most tourists came for the comedy at the Fringe Festival  (I’m sure this is statistically true, but no matter). I also said, again playfully, that I thought Edinburgh’s attitude to its built environment was ‘neurotic.’ Those who speak for it tend to see threats where none exist; their stock-in-trade is the catastrophe; as I’ve discovered to my cost in the past, they react on a hair trigger.

Sure enough, my few seconds of airtime produced a reaction, on social media, via email, and most spectacularly in the Herald newspaper. The rage expressed in all these media illustrated precisely why I used the word ‘neurotic’, and it’s this peculiar group psychology of Edinburgh’s towards the built environment that was my concern, rather than its buildings per se.

I’ve explored this attitude in the past for the journal Foreign Policy, again to controversial effect. And more recently I explored it length in Chris Breward and Fiona Fisher’s anthology British Design, where I traced it back to Lord Cockburn’s famous/notorious 1849 letter to the then Lord Provost, on the ‘Best Ways to Spoil the Beauties of Edinburgh’. This psychology is primitive, lower-brain stuff, and as a result it can give my remarks a primitive-seeming quality too. One of my most powerful critics over the weekend, a local architect (whom, as it happens, I greatly admire) accused me of being simplistic. Why was I reiterating this tired old idea, Edinburgh’s progress being held up by a fusty establishment, resistant to change? Well – I reiterated this tedious idea precisely because it is so strongly there. There is no getting away from it – as the Herald article, and many others show. Unlike other cities, there is no shared understanding, however basic, of what the city should look like. And consequently, change seems threatening.

So if I’d had more time, I’d have said this: (1) EDINBURGH’S TOUGH. The reaction by the heritage lobby is suggestive of a delicate place, in need of constant protection. I don’t think this is right. The landscape and plan are extremely robust, as a view from Salisbury Crags attests. The bigness of the landscape, not to mention the sky, accomodates a vast range of building styles and qualities. (2) AND BIG. Not enormous, but it is a complex, surprisingly sprawling, largely suburban regional capital of half a million, and if you take the travel-to-work area into account, it’s half of Scotland. In that context, the heritage voice, while noisy, can’t be allowed to be the only voice in the room. Lots of people have a stake in this place, not only those who would prefer it were a museum. (3) CITIES CHANGE. There are some particular issues around recent developments and their perceived quality or otherwise. But the conversation about development in the city too often polarizes into an infantile battle between those who want it, and those who want to stop it at all costs. That battle doesn’t do anyone any favours. There can be a much more constructive conversation between past and present, present and future, as – if you actually read it properly – the 1948 Abercrombie Plan for the city shows. And as I said in an earlier piece in the Edinburgh Evening News, great cities aren’t diminished or threatened by change: they embrace it. (4) MISTAKES ARE ACTUALLY FINE. We can’t, and don’t always get things right first time; we learn what works by doing. And as I’ve said elsewhere, if we get it wrong, we can always do it again, or adapt.

Edinburgh has some local difficulties to do with planning, and the monitoring of quality: I was powerfully reminded of that over the weekend, and in fact sympathise with many of my critics, as well as Edinburgh World Heritage. But what was again striking to me was the sense of fear in the conversation. Every side in the debate – heritage lobby, architectural modernist, neo-Georgian traditionalist, whoever – perceived threat in change, whether from developers, the actions of the city council, or even the opinions of obscure academics. So widespread is this anxiety about the future, and so multifaceted, for the time being it makes a sensible conversation about Edinburgh’s buildings if not impossible, certainly very hard. (The council’s tendency to make covert deals is, I am sure, a form of collective avoidance). And that is why I used the word ‘neurotic’, and stand by it.

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The Museum of Everything

Things have been quiet lately on this site partly because I’ve been doing THE MUSUEM OF EVERYTHING. http://sites.ace.ed.ac.uk/museumofeverything/ The site’s first post is reproduced below. Check in daily for updates. The project ends officially on 21 February, but if there’s any demand, we’ll keep the web page going.

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THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING is an imaginary museum created by its visitors over a five day period from 17 to 21 February 2014. It takes place in a big, airy room in Minto House normally used for architecture studio crits. On entering, you’ll see a sign setting out INSTRUCTIONS FOR OPERATION. It’s really very simple. You take a 8″ by 5″ file card from a box and on it you write, or draw, or otherwise  describe any object you would like to see in the Museum. Anything at all is allowed. It could be an art object – Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) for example, which we can temporarily borrow from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It could be a scientific object, like an early microscope or the Large Hadron Collider. It could be an early Koran. Or the Titanic, raised from its watery grave. A live Giant Pacific Octopus. A set of chopsticks. It really is up to you. If the object is small enough, and you’re happy to let us have it, then stick it to the card. Once you’ve filled out the card, pin it to the wall along with the others, and then repeat the process as often as you like. The aim is to fill the Museum – generosity is positively encouraged. Maybe we can help create a new generation of cultural philanthropists, if only in our minds. At the end of the week, on Friday 21 February at 1300 there will be panel discussion involving Prof. Andrew Patrizio, Dr. Jill Burke, Dr. Carol Richardson and Dr. Frances Fowle of the School of  History of Art at which we’ll discuss what kind of a collection we seem to have created, and what we should do with it. Robust – even iconoclastic – discussion will be encouraged.

THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING has scope for a lot of fun. But it is also a serious exercise at a time when museums are so circumscribed by politics, the law, health and safety, the demands of lenders and the demands of insurance companies, the lunacy of the art market, and the competition for audience. With so many competing demands, it’s a wonder museums exist at all. What is certain is that we rarely have an open discussion about them and what we want from them, as we – in this case art historians – are also so often in the position of the Museum’s advocates. The Museum of Everything is, hopefully, a pause in normal business, and a chance to reflect.

The Museum draws on a few historical precedents. The idea that anything might be included comes from the eighteenth century tradition of the Cabinet of Curiosities, an idea that increasingly appears in academic discourse in a cloud of something like nostalgia. The Cabinet’s fundamentally anti-rational character is the very opposite of the present day museum – it has something we’ve undoubtedly lost. The Museum of Everything also draws in a wonderful and eccentric book by Andre Malraux, the Museum Without Walls, published 1952-4. In a classic image from that book, Malraux is pictured looking a carpet of photographs of sculpture – the medium of photography, he argues, gives us the possibility of experiencing art in all kinds of new ways and in new combinations. No longer are we bound to a fixed architectural container. Malraux’s argument of course prefigured the invention of the world wide web, which has informed contemporary museum practice in ways we are only slowly starting to understand. Cognisance of that has to be part of our building a Museum of Everything, too. Finally, there have been one or two Museums of Everything in the past, including a London-based art project with the odd iteration on the South Bank. This is unrelated, not least because it’s an audience, not artist-led project. But we like the name, so we’re sticking with it. If anyone objects, let us know.

So – you’re all welcome to the Museum, very welcome indeed. Visit anytime 0930-1700 and add as much as you like. And please, if you can, come to the events during the week, and help us decide what to do with our creation.