25 Jul, 2009

Drugs have no place in the British Museum

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The British Museum’s modern medicine cabinet is little more than a glitzy distraction

The British Museum goes from strength to strength. Its exhibitions get better and better, its collections are ever more gracefully displayed. But there’s one thing that annoys me every time I visit: the drug cabinet in the middle of the gallery.

The point of this exhibit, entitled From Cradle to Grave and created by a group called Pharmacopoeia, is – I suppose – to make you see the relationship between modern medicine in the western world and the traditional techniques that people in different cultures have used, and still use. The rows and rows of pills, the photos and captions telling of illnesses and other life events, give an anthropological view of life in contemporary Britain to set alongside the exhibits from Pacific islands.

But what really happens is this: eighty per cent of visitors give all their attention to the installation by Pharmacopoeia and ignore – or virtually ignore – the mysterious objects in the other cases. Instead of illuminating world art, this display blinds us to it.

Why? Probably because we respond to the familiar. Arrangements of pills and photos of fellow Britons can be responded to without having to imagine our way into the remote codes of meaning that other kinds of art contains. Another thought is that people may be mistaking this for a work by Damien Hirst. Certainly visitors react as if it is an important piece of contemporary art.

And yet death and disease are directly addressed by this installation, in a way we can all recognise. But instead of bringing the other art to life, Pharmacopoeia creates a modern-looking distraction from the complex and elusive arts of other cultures.

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