The Fitzwilliam Museum has now passed beyond its 200th anniversary, and is wrapping up festivities. Among other things, it has made a short film in which visitors (mainly children, because they are I suppose more biddable) line up to say what they like about the museum, and how much they like it.


It is, if I may be excused the oxymoron, interestingly banal. No one has anything penetrating to say. They talk about the variety of the holdings, or their early experiences and associations, and it is very jolly and positive. I would say the same sort of things myself. But it remains uninteresting.The visitors are aware of the kind of things that might pass muster as answers to such questions, and they deploy those. But none of them is true.

This suggests a structural problem. I read somewhere that when people give bland answers, you have to assume they are concealing something, and this seems a plausible line of attack. I often find myself wondering what I am doing in various places, and I can provide answers (to myself or to others) which conceal my true purpose. The true purpose is usually economic (I am at my desk; I am in the classroom) or social (I am having sherry with my in-laws). So perhaps that is also, obliquely, the case with the Fitzwilliam Museum. I am socially, economically, of such a class; or I see myself as belonging to such a class. From time-to-time, therefore, I need to display the attributes of a person of that class. So I go the museum. I do not go to the greyhound racing. If the woman in the video whose friend came from Australia to visit the museum had said that as far as she was concerned, she’d rather be down the bingo, it would at least have been refreshing (if also edited out).

The word interest, needless to say, is an ambiguous one. Visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum may very well be interesting; it is also in your interest. Much of what you can see in the museum was buried with the privileged of their societies: grave goods mark out the elite of the tribe. And they are totemistic also for us. We go to the Fitzwilliam Museum (and induct our children into the Museum, also) because it signals our status. The interest we take in anything is anything but pure.

None of which, to repeat, means the the museum is not in fact more interesting than the bingo. It is. Much more interesting. But they should have let me make their video for them. I would have got some proper answers (especially from the children).