Saturday, 7 November 2015

Remembering at the Tower of Babel

Pic of Tower of Babel artwork of bone china shops at V&A Museum in London
The V&A's Tower of Babel
Bible story
The Tower of Babel's construction is described in the Bible. Genesis describes how the people of Shinor tried to build a tower reaching to the heavens. When God saw the tower, he confused their language so that they could no longer understand each other.

Today the world speaks many tongues. Translators and interpreters help the World's peoples understand each other. This spurred my interest to visit an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum last month.

Barnaby Barford
The V&A's Tower of Babel was not a portrayal of the biblical tower. It was a contemporary artwork by Barnaby Barford. The tower was made up of 3,000 separate porcelain shops. It stood 6 metres in height (see photo).

Barnaby Barford compared the British addiction to shopping and consumerism with thwarted biblical attempts to reach Heaven.

The artist toured London on his bicycle taking photos of suitable shops. He recreated them in bone china in his studio. The shops on the tower's lower level were derelict, while those at the top were some of London's most exclusive, luxury stores. At close quarters, you could see all the efforts made to capture each shop's details. Those at the top were a distant blur from the ground.

Pic of shop details in Barford's Tower of Babel
Shop detail in Barford's Tower of Babel

Barford's Tower of Babel has now been dismantled. Many of the individual bone china shops have already been sold off with the proceeds going to various charities.

French South Kensington
The V&A Museum is very close to South Kensington tube station. There are a number of French residents in the area. The French Lycée Charles de Gaulle celebrated its 100-year anniversary this year. The area has a very French feel with its cafés and French bakeries. Therefore I couldn't help recalling Napoleon's reputed gibe of the British as "a nation of shopkeepers".

Why museums?
A number of my readers have commented on my apparent fascination with museums. I can appreciate that this may seem odd for a translator specialising in innovation. However, modern museums have to appeal to a wide cross section of the general public. London's museums are using a fascinating range of digital and other innovative strategies. Barford's Tower of Babel demonstrates how a museum can comment and reflect on society today as well as on the past.

The French and British have a different attitude to museums. Some months ago I noticed a French tourism poster at White City tube station inviting the British to "come and see our great museums." Unfortunately, the common British attitude is that museums are boring, dusty places.

The French always seem to be much more aware of their history than the British. I was interested to note that the French have helped with a model of the Battle of Agincourt at the Tower of London for the 600th Anniversary. 

During my year at the Université de Nancy II, I found that I had to swot up on my Franco-British history. The average Brit's knowledge of 1066 was not good enough. In order to hold my own in dinner table debates, it wasn't enough to know the date of the battle. I needed to know about tactics, weapons, armour and soldier numbers.

My father still speaks of a letter that I wrote after a visit to the Museum of the French Resistance and Deportation in Besançon's Citadel. It must have been my first experience of a museum recreating the atmosphere of the time. A wall there bears the words:

"Ceux que ne se souviennent pas du passé sont condamnés à le revivre"

"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it"

Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday. It is the closest Sunday to the 11th November, Armistice Day. It marks the anniversary of the end of hostilities in the First World War at 11am in 1918.

Tomorrow we remember all those who gave their lives in the two World Wars and other conflicts. It is a time of reflection away from modern consumerism. In remembering those who died, we remind ourselves of history and say "Never Again".

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