Tiffany Jenkins: Should culture gods smile on ‘Olympicopolis’?

The Smithsonian Institution is working to establish a museum outpost at London's Olympic park. Picture: AP
The Smithsonian Institution is working to establish a museum outpost at London's Olympic park. Picture: AP
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The Smithsonian’s plans to open a branch museum on London’s old Games site might also have a downside, argues Tiffany Jenkins

In 1829 the scientist James Smithson died, leaving his estate to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Smithson was the illegitimate son of an English earl and a French woman. He was an English citizen, born in Paris, who died in Italy. He was very well travelled, but he never went to America. It may seem strange that Smithson would pledge so much – his estate totalled half a million dollars, that’s one-sixty-sixth of the entire US federal budget at the time – to establish an educational institution somewhere he had not even visited. That’s a little odd, perhaps, but it’s also inspiring. Maybe he believed in the idea of this new country, and the need to support institutions that would, as he put it, increase and diffuse knowledge. Perhaps also there was something in the air: many cultural and scientific institutions were founded around this time.

The Smithsonian has nurtured scholarship and understanding for almost 170 years now and has been fondly termed the “nation’s attic”. I have spent hours, days, even weeks – if you total it up – in some of the 19 museums and nine research centres that fall under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution, examining fascinating objects that include the first lightbulb, African art, moon rock, Asian art, native American artefacts and the Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

So you would think I would welcome the news that the Smithsonian may set up a new museum in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. It would be a little closer to visit than Washington. It’s part of a plan for the old Games site in Stratford which will see it transformed into what the developers call a cultural district, titled “the Olympicopolis” by the London Mayor Boris Johnson. It is intended that this cultural quarter will regenerate the area, like the way the planners for the Olympics promised that the Games would. The Victoria and Albert Museum is eying up the site for V&A East and Sadler’s Wells Theatre is also interested in establishing a space.

There are obvious benefits. These are, after all, great cultural institutions, so why on earth not distribute their collections and expertise further afield? The Smithsonian has some 137 million artefacts that thousands more visitors could see if they were on show on this side of the Atlantic. Such exchanges reward those involved with interesting ideas and rare and wonderful things look at. This area of London needs a lot more love and attention. Frankly, it could do with the investment and extra footfall.

But there are also costs: financial, of course. Then there are cultural considerations too. And it is time to air them, before, like the now- ubiquitous coffee shops, we come across too many branches of once well-respected institutions on the street corners of too many cities, put to work in the hopeful aim of improving an area but in the process ruining the reputation of many a museum.

The Smithsonian is not the only museum to have expansionist plans. Most of the big ones are at it. The Guggenheim was at the vanguard when it opened a branch in Bilbao in 1997. There are outposts planned for Helsinki, and Abu Dhabi, where it will sit close to a branch of the Louvre, not far from the Zayed National Museum which will open with expert assistance from the British Museum. The Guggenheim also proposed outposts in Rio, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, amongst other places, but these have not been realised. Tate art galleries have opened in St Ives and Liverpool. There were plans for a V&A franchise in Blackpool and Bradford but they collapsed. And in Scotland we have – or will have at some point – the V&A Museum of Design in Dundee.

For the new museums that have opened with an old name, it’s important to ask: what do they get for the money – and is it worth it? They don’t always get the good stuff in return. It is estimated that Boris Johnson would need to raise £33 million for the Smithsonian in East London, and experience should tell us that such estimates are usually unrealistic and low.

It is not known what the Smithsonian would send to London, but it is unlikely that it would be any of its iconic objects – and rightly so; they should be in the US.

The Smithsonian is involved in a big fundraising scheme. It wants to raise $1.5 billion by 2017. Selling its name and stuff from the cupboards may be one way it achieve the target. That’s not a bad thing – museums always require money. But these motives raise questions about the likely success of franchises.

The interests of the named museum do not always match the interests of those wishing to set up a new museum. Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim, indicated one problem when he told Dezeen magazine that his vision for satellite museums is “to stop being an exporting institution and instead be a collaborative one”.

You cannot drop a museum into a location and escape. There needs to be a partnership approach. There has to be an independent and local community with enough expertise to run things. If it is not possible to set up a new museum without the help of a named brand, it’s unlikely that it will work.

This isn’t to imply that all of the museum deals are mismatched. The V&A Museum of Design is a self-financed partnership, which means it is locally rooted and run by Dundee’s cultural and intellectual community, who can and will draw on the expertise of the staff of the V&A in London. And they will have access to on the main collection as well as touring exhibitions. Maybe it will be successful.

We do, however, need to make sure that we avoid a situation in which we see the diffusion of the reputation of a great museum accompanied by too small an increase in knowledge.