Compared with last year, when art galleries and other public diversions sprouted across Europe like mushrooms, 1988 looks to be a relatively quiet year for museums.
Only in Britain is much set to happen. There, museums are continuing to open at the rate of one every two weeks. Although many of these are of purely local or specialized interest, such as a new candle-making museum at Cilgwyn, Wales, which inhabits a room just 8 by 10 feet, others are considerably more ambitious.
The most notable among the latter is the new Tate Gallery in Liverpool, which will almost certainly be the largest and most important new museum opened in Europe this year. Housed in a converted Victorian warehouse overlooking the Mersey River, the gallery will serve as a sister museum to its more famous namesake in London, and will offer as much viewing space. "At a stroke, there will be twice as much modern art on show in Britain as there was the day before," says its curator, Richard Francis.
For years the keepers of the Tate collection in London had complained they were only able to show 10 percent of the museum's collection at any one time. The rest was crated up in the basement. Then someone hit on the novel idea of inserting a new museum into a massive urban renewal project in the Albert Docks area of Liverpool's waterfront, once the busiest and biggest docks in the world, but now derelict.
The plan would have the multiple benefit of giving new life to a glorious old building -- the Albert Dock warehouse, dating from 1841, had been empty for nearly 30 years -- while bringing some of the world's best modern art to one of Europe's most deprived cities, and giving the Tate a chance to display works that in some instances had been locked away for decades. Among the artists whose works will be on display when the museum opens on May will be Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Rene' Magritte and Mark Rothko.
The new museum will contain 30,000 square feet of exhibition space spread over three floors (a further 10,000 feet will be added later), and is expected to attract half a million visitors a year. Admission is free, though there will be a charge for special exhibitions. The works on display in Liverpool will be rotated frequently, and there will be a complete turnover in the museum's contents every three or four years. "It is certainly fair to say that this is one of the most important developments in modern art in Britain in many years," Francis says.
Adjacent to the new Tate museum is the greatly underrated Merseyside Maritime Museum. For more than a century Liverpool was the world's busiest port, sending generations of European emigrants to America. The most famous -- not to mention ill-fated -- ship to sail from the port was the Titanic, and the museum will have a special exhibition devoted to the great disaster from April 1 to the end of the year. The show will include a 20-foot scale model of the ship, a reconstruction of its sinking, and historic remnants.
Outside the museum is a permanent collection of historic ships. The Albert Docks area -- it is still the largest enclosed dock basin in the world -- is an agreeable place for strolling, with a growing selection of stores and restaurants among the museums.
One of the more unconventional of Europe's new museums this year -- both in intent and location -- will be the Museum of the Moving Image in London, which has been built at a cost of $10 million and is scheduled to open in June (the exact date is still not certain). The most immediately arresting thing about the museum is its improbable site: It has been deftly shoehorned underneath Waterloo Bridge on the south bank of the Thames, adjacent to the National Film Theatre.
Despite its modest size, the museum expects to provide about two hours of diversion for the price of an admission ticket (also as yet unspecified). It will cover the entire 5,000-year history of the moving image as entertainment, from the earliest lantern slides and shadow shows to modern movies and television. Exhibits will cover cinema and TV history, with displays of famous props and costumes -- including Charlie Chaplin's derby hat and cane -- and film sets where visitors can see exactly how movies are made. "The idea is to make it much more accessible than traditional museums, with exhibits that children can touch and manipulate," says Janet Corbett of the museum staff. There will also be frequent lectures, shows and screenings of classic films in a 135-seat theater. Dedicated cine'astes can then move next door to the National Film Theatre, which screens more than 2,000 movies a year from all over the world.
One of the most welcome innovations by the museum is its hours. These will extend from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week, making it one of the few museums in Europe that you can visit in the evening.
The Museum of the Moving Image (or MOMI as it is known) illustrates a recent trend among museums -- the idea that they should entertain as much as educate, and possibly even turn a profit.
Museum-going has in fact become such big business in Europe that at least one good-sized company has been spawned to develop and build profit-making museums. Called Heritage Projects and based in York, England, it has a work force of 100 designers and other specialists, and was the organization behind the hugely successful Jorvik Viking Center in York, an underground museum where visitors ride in electric carts through a carefully re-created street scene showing life in Viking Britain. In just four years the museum has become one of the 10 most visited tourist attractions in the country.
This year Heritage Projects will open two similar endeavors -- a $2.5 million Pilgrims Way in Canterbury, re-creating the life and times of the pilgrims in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," and a $4 million Oxford Story project, in which the history of Oxford University is traced through the ages in three dimensions. Next year the company will open the Edinburgh Story in the Scottish capital, and a $10 million Dinosaur World in Sheffield will follow some time later. All will rely extensively on well-designed models, sets and life-size sculptures to immerse the visitor in a sense of the period -- right down to the stench of medieval gutters.
Pilgrims Way, on St. Margaret's Street in Canterbury, opens March 19; the Oxford Story, at 6 Broad St. in Oxford, opens March 26. The admission for each is $5 for adults and $2.80 for children under 16. If the new museums follow the pattern of the Jorvik Center you can expect them to be crowded throughout much of the year, but also extremely well done and well worth a visit.
Elsewhere in Europe, the year will be distinguished not so much by the appearance of new museums as by the reappearance of old ones. In Rome, for instance, the Villa Borghese, an art museum that has been darkly clad in scaffolding and closed to the public for more than two years, has at last been reopened. Located in a handsome park, it is one of the more unsung treasure houses of Europe, with a staggering array of sculpture -- including at least two of Bernini's greatest works -- and many old masters, most of them collected by the Borghese family, for whom the villa was named.
Similarly, in the Netherlands, a great museum that has been closed to visitors for five years has at last been reopened. The Maritshuis, a 17th-century palace in The Hague, has one of Europe's least-known great art collections. Its contents include a wealth of Dutch old masters, including Vermeer's well-known "View of Delft" and his entrancing "Head of a Girl" (often called the "Mona Lisa" of the North), plus a whole room full of pictures by Jan Steen. But perhaps the two most memorable works are a pair of self-portraits by Rembrandt. One is of a confident young man. The other, painted shortly before his death in 1669, is of an old man from whom the life has already been half drained. Their juxtaposition is moving.
Not only has the fabric of the museum been carefully overhauled, but most of the paintings have been cleaned and restored. For the first time in 200 years, many can be seen as they were when they were painted.
The record for the museum out of circulation for the longest stretch must go to the Museum of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid, which recently reopened after being shut for renovation for 12 years. Officials at the Spanish Cultural Institute in London were not sure just why it had taken so long to renovate the museum, which is housed in the 17th-century Palace of Juan de Goyeneche, but are confident it was well worth the wait. The museum houses the second most important collection of art in Spain (after the Prado, also in Madrid) and includes works of note by Rubens, Goya, Vela'zquez, El Greco and many others. Bill Bryson is a free-lance writer in London.