O for a Muse of Fire …

In last week’s TelQuel there is a comment by official responsible for Morocco’s  14 public museums, that gives me pause for thought. The bulk of the interview is predictable and worthy – is the president raising much money from the private sector? Is there tension with the Ministry of Culture? What is the state of training in museology? And then comes this extraordinary question from the interviewer:

Comment se-fait il que dans le privé, l’appellation « musée » ne soit soumis à aucune réglementation ?

To which he replies : Il y’a aujourd’hui un vide juridique qu’il va falloir rapidement combler. Il est capital que l’appellation musée réponde désormais à des critères extrêmement précis. De la scénographie à l’architecture en passant par la nature des collections, tout va devoir être formalisé, réglementé, et vite !

It appears that both the interviewer and the interviewee share an overwhelming concern that people outside the public sector may be exhibiting Collections of Things and – hold your breath – having the effrontery to call them museums. Down this road, of course, lie chaos, anarchy and the collapse of civilisation. It’s a bit like unregulated use of terms like house, railway station, door or window – the top of a slippery slope of presumptuous imprecision which can lead only to overheating the bureaucratic brain, short-circuiting the fonctionnare’s synapses and eventually, boiling alive the pin-striped cerebellum.

Museum is a word used – occasionally pretentiously – to describe a Collection of Things, exhibited for those who want to see them. It is a description, not a title. In other words it has more in common with door (another description) than with Major-General (a title of which we can expect fairly limited ascription). It started life as a Temple of the Muses, but I imagine that anyone so brazen as to open a temple under the name of a Musæum in that pristine sense these days would have inspectors from the Ministry of Culture all over him like spots.

My mind strays to Brussels, home by repute to over 80 museums including a Toy Museum, a Magritte Museum, a Beer Museum, a Hergé Museum and – my favourite when we lived in Brussels a decade ago  – the Witloof Museum, a museum devoted entirely to chicory. There is a Musée du Slip there, too, an underpants museum to which celebrities of both sexes donate pairs of their own knickers to be framed and displayed. I can already see a humourless frown passing across the brow of the Inspectors of Vocabulary … these undisciplined, morally lax and linguistically promiscuous institutions can have no right to call themselves museums! What inexcusable impertinence!

Perhaps this simply demonstrates the deep chasm between a French and an English world-view. What Englishman in his or her right mind could possibly devote more than a millisecond to considering regulating the use of the word museum? I challenge any of my fellow-countrymen to read, without giggling uncontrollably, this sentence: It is vital that from now on the term museum answer to very precise criteria … all must be formalised, regulated – and fast! It’s the sort of running gag that the television comedy Yes Minister used to enjoy – like the imaginary EC directive for straightening bananas.

But now I come to think of it, there is an upside to all this. Could the same towering authority remove the right of telephone companies that don’t deliver a functioning telephone service to call themselves telephone companies? And instruct the municipality to stop using the word road for the frayed ribbon of decaying tarmac outside my front gate that collapses into a gruyère-like mess of holes whenever it rains?

Now those are vides qu’il va falloir rapidement combler. Really.

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