In early 2017, the Natural History Museum in London removed from their grand entrance hall the skeleton of a diplodocus, which had been a fixture of the museum since 1905. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Dippy’, the skeleton had moved around between various museum halls, but had become a favourite of museum-goers during his tenure as the museum’s centrepiece, ever since he replaced the collection of elephants and other animals in 1979.
Not everyone was happy following the museum’s announcement of the change in January 2015: the hashtag #SaveDippy trended on Twitter and an online petition calling for his reinstatement gathered tens of thousands of signatures. The museum was quick to defend itself. Dippy would be sent on a grand tour of the UK, allowing our country cousins, unable to afford the train fare to London, a chance to gaze with awe upon the majestic sauropod. Only the museum were telling us in the same breath that he wasn’t so majestic after all. We were reminded that Dippy was only a replica of the original Diplodocus carnegii holotype (displayed in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh), while his replacement, the suspended 25-metre long skeleton of a young blue whale, was not only larger than Dippy, but was the actual skeleton. Murmurs were made about conservation and about looking to the future rather than the past.
You didn’t have to wait long to find out the real reason. Head to the museum’s Facebook page today and you’ll find it advertising dozens of New Years Eve parties, yoga classes and silent discos taking place in the main entrance hall. On their website, there’s a shiny new section titled ‘venue hire’, which proudly proclaims that the hall – their ‘largest venue’ (!) – can seat a wedding party of 450, hold a reception for 1,200 or host ‘the perfect summer party’. Don’t think it’s all fancy shindigs for Londoners with more money than sense, though – barely a year after removing Dippy from the hall, the museum hosted a party from the Saudi embassy, shortly after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudis paid £23,700 for the hire of the hall. In any case, by replacing Dippy with the whale skeleton – which, suspended from the ceiling, takes up zero floor space – the museum found an absolutely brilliant way to free up their ‘venue’ for more events like these, with only a fraction of the outrage that would have ensued had they cleared the hall completely.
The reshuffling of exhibits, you see, was never about the whale. It was about the ‘space’. It’s always about the ‘space’. The word appears six times on the museum’s wedding page, competing with ‘venue’ to be the most pathetic and banal way possible to describe a gorgeous Victorian Romanesque hall designed by Alfred Waterhouse. Both words are, of course, symptoms of the lazy language endemic in the world of marketing (‘Earth Hall provides a striking space’ etc. etc.), but they have, through repeated usage, come to stand for a particular well-defined and pervasive concept.
For these are far from the only ‘spaces’ to have popped up in the last decade. Bath Abbey and the church of St Laurence in Ludlow have both recently removed their fine Victorian pews (in Bath’s case, designed by George Gilbert Scott) in order to convert the building into, in the words of one spokesperson, a ’21st-century event venue’. The Facebook page for St Laurence’s, meanwhile, frequently advertises various enterprises (most recently, a mediaeval-style bazaar and a ceilidh/hog-roast) taking place in the nave of the church – except that it’s never called that, it’s now always ‘the Space’ with a capital S.
Now, I can’t entirely blame either the Natural History Museum or the pew-removers for the choices they have made. The Church of England does not receive any funding for the upkeep of churches that are, in very many cases, priceless parts of our national heritage (and very expensive to maintain). The burden is particularly great for enormous parish churches, like the ones in Bath and Ludlow, which are not eligible for the same tax relief given to our cathedrals. The Natural History Museum does not charge for entry and relies on moonlighting as a conference centre in order to stop the dinosaur skeletons falling to pieces. Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on how we have reached the point where a 12th century church or a national museum packed with valuable and beloved artefacts should find that its most valuable asset is its brute physical dimensions.
We could point to the fact that there are now more of us and less space available per person. However, there is evidence to suggest that this view is misplaced. House-building, for instance, has outstripped population growth even in places like London. Research published by CaChE suggests that there are a number of other factors in play. The financial circumstances post-2008 mean that banks are now much more reluctant to grant mortgages, leading to a decline in home ownership unrelated to the quantity of housing available. Meanwhile, the value of buildings not as homes but as assets remains high. Property, even now, can pay dividends to an investor just by sitting there. The Natural History Museum shares a borough with 1,399 empty homes. In a market like that, if you want to actually do something with a building, then you’d better find a way to squeeze every last penny out of it. This is why rents in London are high. This is why we can’t have a museum in one building, a church in another and a convention centre in a third. By existing, a large building is a money-making opportunity and it has to behave like one.
The Labour Party-commissioned report Land for the Many, makes the point succinctly.
An imbalance in the use and ownership of land also crowds out public amenities. TheLand for the Many, George Monbiot (editor), Robin Grey, Tom Kenny, Laurie Macfarlane, Anna Powell-Smith, Guy Shrubsole, Beth Stratford.
expansion of private space at the expense of public space shuts down opportunities to
pursue pleasure, fitness and peace of mind, creating deprivation.
Private space is not necessarily a bad thing, but they’re not talking about people’s homes. Private ownership of property is a desperately unequal affair, with a few tycoons owning huge portfolios and the rest mopped up by those who are merely very well off. However, the ill effects of this are not felt only by private buildings: those places that we should be able to rely on to serve a public good – our museums, our places of worship, our libraries, our schools – are being forced by the same market pressures to become instruments of the same failing system.
There’s one curious counterexample to the ‘space’ phenomenon that I ran into recently. Norwich Castle Museum is currently in possession of an enormous and wonderful space, namely the hollowed-out keep of the mediaeval castle. The castle has undergone many changes in its life (many ill-advised), including the removal of the original floors and walls of the keep by Sir John Soane and the later cladding of the outside of the castle in Bath Stone. The museum directors have now taken the bizarre decision to try to recreate the internal floors and walls from the Middle Ages (they say ‘reinstate’, but since they have very little information about the floor plan, that seems overly generous). Sadly, the casualty again seems to be our Victorian heritage – this time, the elegant galleries and arcades of Edward Boardman.
Perhaps this can be explained away by the fact that the conversion involves placing several floors, thus increasing the total floor space. Mercifully, this idea seems not to have occurred to their colleagues in London. Keep an eye out for the Turkish executive dining in the newly rebuilt Norwich Castle banqueting hall….