On holiday with Leonardo

Nicholas Penny

  • The New Museology edited by Peter Vergo
    Reaktion, 230 pp, £23.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 948462 04 3
  • The Romantic Interior: The British Collector at Home 1750-1850 by Clive Wainwright
    Yale, 314 pp, £35.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 300 04225 6
  • Journal of the History of Collections, No 1 edited by Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor
    Oxford, 230 pp, £23.00, June 1989, ISBN 0 00 954665 0

To attract support today, a great museum, whether of art, archaeology, ethnography or natural history, would be ill advised to draw attention to its extensive collection of specimens, even if it can reasonably be claimed that these specimens enable the visitor to confirm, extend and perhaps challenge the work of a Winckelmann, a Darwin or a Burckhardt. There would be little point in defending them as places where the rare or obscure can be rediscovered in private and where anyone, however poor, can speculate and meditate in peace. They have to present themselves as exciting places to shop, with didactic but fun videos, and glamorous displays of popular masterpieces (preferably on temporary loan). They are being forced to regard themselves as a part of the entertainment industry. The institution most conspicuously under pressure is the Victoria and Albert Museum, about which I have already written in this paper. One of the greatest collections and educational resources in Europe, it has been damaged by the expulsion, on government advice, of some of its most eminent curators, and by the appointment, in irregular circumstances, of a new level of management bent on replacing the ideal of public service by slick public relations and marketing. A seat on the museum’s Board of Trustees was vacated long ago by the resignation of Martin Kemp. No art historian of equivalent seniority can, it seems, be persuaded to fill it. A collection of essays entitled The New Museology suggests where suitable candidates may be found. Paul Greenhalgh is one. He cheerfully announces that ‘in these times of desperate financial pressure’ – can he be referring to Mrs Thatcher’s ‘economic renaissance’? – museums ‘cannot exist simply as a receptacle guarding our heritage, or as a haven for scholars’. As if they ever ‘simply’ did anything of the sort. He denigrates the high-minded aims of Victorian museums and commends the international exhibitions around the turn of the century which were ‘loud, aggressive and tempestuous’ thanks to their provision of popular diversions.

Charles Saumarez Smith is unimpressed by the diligent cataloguing in which curators have engaged. ‘It has been assumed to be adequate to assemble as much information as possible which appears to pertain directly to the original circumstances of an object’s production without much investigation of the nature of the relationship between the artefact and its life-cycle. As a result, museum scholarship has steadily drifted out of the mainstream of research in the humanities into a methodological backwater governed by empiricism. Yet there is a current tendency within the social sciences to look anew at the type of evidence which artefacts might provide about social-relations.’ ‘Appears to pertain’ is very haughty. ‘The relationship’ and ‘life-cycle’ is very mysterious. But if you are genuinely interested in when, for example, forks were first used, and who used them and what they feel like in the hand or mouth, you would be unwise to ignore the governor of the backwater.

While Saumarez Smith sadly shakes his head at the curators who have not attended to the ‘current tendency’, Ludmilla Jordanova stamps her foot in the Bethnal Green Museum: ‘Social differences in clothing are not mentioned, nor are prices given. In fact, a number of the cases clearly contain expensive, hand-made or exclusive clothes. To imply that all children at a given time – the cases are structured by period – wore the same clothes is to deny the realities of a society structured around class.’ Philip Wright proposes that special reception areas should be attached to museums, where the categories of objects the museum contains (‘white man’s art’ and so on), the ‘jobs and personalities’ of their donors and the curricula vitae of the staff will be spelt out to the visitor. Key works should be isolated in rooms with tiered seating. He is indignant because, in labels today, ‘references are certainly not permitted to such personal circumstances as the artist’s physique or health, wealth, family and friends, collectors and dealers, religious and political beliefs, sexual preferences, or experiences of holidays, travel or war.’

Wright (whose skin colour and date of birth, to say nothing of chest measurement and bank balance, are not recorded in the preliminary notes on contributors) would seem to be keen on giving us facts, but his own idea of a fact is that ‘since the Second World War’ there has been a determined effort to keep texts out of the art museum. The truth is that there has been a steady increase in helpful information available in labels, gallery guides and leaflets. Another contributor, Nick Merriman, does offer real facts – or rather figures. He notes that people who have never visited museums feel that there are too many words to read. One is surprised that they were permitted (or could be bothered) to fill in this part of a questionnaire, but their response does at least suggest that some of the less educated members of the public would not appreciate having information about the class structure (and Leonardo’s holiday experiences) banged into them at every opportunity when they are lured, by Greenhalgh’s entertainments, into the company of art.

What might be the result of allowing the higher educational purposes of a museum to be influenced by the entertainment industry? One example, perhaps the most interesting, is the fantasy transport into the ‘world of the past’, a feature of Disneyland which serious art museums have usually resisted. This can be achieved with dazzling skill, especially when the past is relatively recent. At Warwick Castle the Tussauds Group have gone much further than those country houses where a copy of today’s Telegraph is draped over the armchair and the table is laid for breakfast. They have created the illusion that the castle has remained as it was eighty years ago, with (wax) Edwardian aristocrats preparing to bath and to dine. Visitors to the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine, on the upper floors of the Science Museum in London, will find long-buried emotions galvanised by the sight of a meticulously reconstructed GP’s surgery of the 1950s (meanwhile children can peer at sailors having their legs amputated – mercifully in a miniature model). This example is sufficient to show that historical reconstructions are not always designed to provide comfortable fantasies. It must also be acknowledged that they can possess great power – proximity and prosaic fact can provide a voyeuristic frisson which nothing on stage or screen can match. But all such reconstructions inevitably promote a false confidence in what we can know about the past, as if seeing it were equivalent to experiencing it.

The creation of ‘period rooms’ in museums in the early part of this century may sometimes have been animated by the ambitions of Disneyland time travel, as is the current zeal for ‘authentic decor’ – as if we could, in the right setting, become the people for whom the objects were made. Museums should preserve the alien identity of the past. This is what many of the great collections formed in the last century did, and the modern claim, found in some contributions to The New Museology, that the objects in them were designed to reassure the privileged individual or impress an imperialist public as heirlooms, tributes and trophies is grotesquely partial.

The hero of Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin of 1831 visits a gambling den, crosses the Pont Royal, contemplates drowning himself in the Seine, decides to delay his suicide, strolls down the Quai Voltaire and is drawn into a shop into which are crowded curiosities and treasures – marble busts, stained glass, quaintly ornamented pistols, Dresden porcelain, a Red Indian calumet, a pair of harem slippers. The description of the shop was surely influenced by fashionable paintings of picturesque interiors of which a notable example is E.W. Cooke’s The Antiquary’s Cell of 1835 (reproduced on the dust-jacket of Clive Wainwright’s The Romantic Interior) with its jugs and rugs and candlesticks shining in the bituminous gloom. But in Balzac the quaint and weird scenery gradually assumes an apocalyptic character and a philosophical significance which such paintings never attempted. His hero finds sorrowing faces, some dim, others vivid, in these relics of former civilisations. What he surveys on the upper floors of the shop is rarer and more valuable, culminating in a shuttered painting, which is opened for him by the mysterious aged proprietor. Illuminated by the last rays of the sun is the portrait of Jesus Christ by Raphael. The spectres of the religious and beliefs of ancient and distant races crowd upon him.

In the course of this astonishing tour de force Balzac invokes Cuvier, the ‘greatest poet of the century’ – greater even than Byron. The palaeontologist’s conception of the past has the effect of making us ‘lose our footing in the present’. Again and again in 19th-century literature we are reminded of the vertiginous prospects opened up behind, beneath and before us by students of fossils. Ruskin claims to hear the clink of the geologists hammer in the cadences of the Scriptures. ‘There where the long street roars, hath been/The stillness of the central sea./The hills are shadows and they flow,’ Tennyson reflects. One of Pater’s heroes, looking at the stone of his college window sill, observes that the very fabric of the ancient university city is composed of millons of dead bodies. The extended visions of the past which the new art museums also provided could paralyse as well as inspire. To think of Cuvier when contemplating the debris of ancient or distant civilisations in an antique shop is a less surprising stroke than we might at first suppose, given the presence of stuffed crocodiles grinning at the stained glass and snapping at the marble busts. And in the informal museums assembled in aristocratic country houses in England in the same period (or so we gather from the description of Vivian Place in The Princess) there might be armour, stags heads, classical busts, with ‘carved stones of the Abbey-ruin in the park,/Huge Ammonites, and the first bones of Time’ on the floor, while on the tables every ‘clime and age’ was ‘jumbled’ together: ‘Claymore and snowshoe, toys in lava, fans/Of sandal, amber, ancient rosaries,/Laborious orient ivory sphere in sphere.’

There are numerous earlier instances of natural-history specimens kept in close proximity to archaeological fragments, and the curiosities of art and nature were not only found in the same collections but combined in the same objects – notably in cups fashioned out of rare stones, nautilus shells, coconuts and ostrich eggs, elaborately mounted in silver gilt. Coins and fossils were not only gathered in similar cabinets, but were regarded in rather the same way, as fragmentary but reliable evidence won from the earth, by collectors in the 17th and 18th centuries. This emerges in Doctor Woodward’s Shield, J.M. Levine’s absorbing study of ‘history, science and satire in Augustan England’ (little noticed when it was published over a decade ago but gradually gaining recognition as one of the most imaginative contributions to the history of ideas written in the last fifty years). Levine at one point compares Cuvier’s methods of classifying, comparing, and generalising from fossil evidence with Winckelmann’s earlier revolutionary interpretation of the sculptural remains of Antiquity. In the writings of both men the relics of a more or less static ancient world become part of a dynamic line of descent. Woodward’s fossil collection, amassed between 1688 and 1724 and still virtually intact in its original cabinets in Cambridge University, is also the subject of one of the main articles in the new Journal of the History of Collections. Other contributions include a remarkable document submitted to the Elector of Saxony in 1589 on how to form a collection and an investigation of the ‘classical etymology and Renaissance genealogy’ of the museum. This Journal reflects an increasing interest among historians of ideas in the origin of the modern museum, the nature of its antecedents – the studiolo, the kunstkammer, the Cabinet of Curiosities – and the significance of systems of classification and styles of display.

Clive Wainwright is no historian of ideas but is of far more interest than the volumes on ‘authentic decor’ which its title might suggest. He traces the way collections grew and takes us round the rooms where they were kept. Beginning with Horace Walpole’s Gothic Villa at Strawberry Hill, he moves on to William Beckford’s vast Fonthill Abbey and to Walter Scott’s Abbotsford, both in their very different ways related to Strawberry Hill, and then to Goodrich Court and Charlecote Manor. There were many less well documented collections, which he discusses in passing, some of which, being crowded into small London houses, were closer in character to the painting by Cooke, half still-life, half interior, on his dust-jacket. The treasure-house created by the miniaturist Richard Cosway at 20 Stratford Place, Oxford Street is a case in point. Wainwright cites the 1821 sale catalogue of this collection, but not Hazlitt’s recollection of its ‘specimens of art, antiquarianism, and vertu, jumbled all together in the richest disorder, dusty, shadowy, obscure, with much left to the imagination’. The arrangement, or rather lack of one, Hazlitt contrasted with Fonthill, which had a ‘finical, polished, petty, perfect modernised air’, for all its stained glass, candlelight and gothic perspectives.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, and other similar institutions, are embodiments of the great 19th century idea of creating a vast repository to commemorate the skills and values of ancient and alien civilisations. It was not, however, the tidy classifications of specimens which the museum, properly, imposes but the disorder of a collection like Cosway’s, the more studied clutter of Sir John Soane’s Museum, or the accidental poetry of the shops of the antiquity brokers, or ‘nicknackitarians’, which may have most excited the historical imagination. It is no exaggeration to say that next to nothing was known about the London brokers before Wainwright’s researches in census lists, insurance records and the earliest Post Office directories. A similarly diligent researcher in Paris may well discover that Balzac had a particular shop in mind when he wrote La Peau de chagrin, though he must have been thinking of the collection of Alexandre Du Sommerard, housed at first in the rue de Menars and then, from 1832, in the Hôtel de Cluny.

Although the influence of the magically lit rooms filled with Du Sommerard’s bric à brac was very great in France, especially when the collection was opened to the general public in the 1830s, Wainwright claims that it ‘was not particularly strong in England, for by the time he created them such interiors were not unusual there. Indeed French artists of the stature of Delacroix were coming to study English Romantic interiors as early as the 1820s.’ France has nevertheless a certain priority in this story. It was in the Musée des Monuments Français that it was first possible in Europe to experience something which we now expect from a great museum such as the Victoria and Albert – the condensed exhibition of the most notable expressions, in a variety of media, of the high culture of a nation as it evolved over many centuries. The Museé was formed by Alexandre Lenoir in 1792 in the deconsecrated convent of the Augustinians (where the Ecole des Beaux-Art now stands) and incorporated tapestries, stained glass, sepulchral sculptures and reliquaries salvaged during the Revolution.

The command of ancient institutions upon the imagination was strengthened as a paradoxical consequence of their destruction, the ghosts finding particularly receptive minds in the young, who had been systematically cut off from their nation’s past. It was here, for example, that the young Michelet came to gaze on the pale sleeping faces of the royal effigies of Medieval France.

If the Musée des Monuments Français was the ancestor of some of the most serious modern museums, it cannot be denied that it also included elements which anticipate Disneyland – most obviously, Lenoir’s largely bogus tomb of Abelard and Eloise (subsequently transported to Père-Lachaise, where it charms as a piece of sentimental Gothic revival). The ‘period room’, too, was anticipated in the Musée with its reconstructions of portions of ancient architecture. The Revolution which provided the Musée with its fragments of stone carving also enabled a great deal of panelling (Medieval, Renaissance and even Rococo) to find its way from France and the Low Countries into the interiors Wainwright describes, such as those at Goodrich Court, the castle Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick built in the 1840s to display his great collection of armour and other antiquities. Meyrick also arranged tableaux: ‘Looking through the arch of the anteroom a soldier in mail armour of Delhi is seen kneeling in an atitude of homage to an Indian Rajah, who is seated cross-legged on his couch with one hand resting on a mace.’ In the ‘Hastilude Chamber’ Medieval knights on horseback were seen jousting. Upstairs there were rooms furnished in the styles of Charles I, Queen Anne and even ‘modern France’. One visitor to Goodrich found the ‘make-believe’ of the display ‘puerile’ – a vacant suit of armour was a ‘strange and solemn thing’ into which a model should not be inserted.

Goodrich Court was exceptional. Only a few of the interiors Wainwright investigates were inhabited by models or were attempts at consistent historical reconstructions. Even when panelling and furniture were restored or faked to look as if they had always been there, the objects in the rooms were usually from different periods and places, and were seldom displayed in their original conditions or settings. They retained their numinous character as relics and the imagination was not numbed by the illusion of facile access to the past but stimulated by the task of re-creating it. Wainwright declines to ‘undertake any psychological or sociological analysis into why these singular interiors were created’ but briskly defers in his concluding pages to such modern authorities as Pierre Bourdieu who, like his followers among the contributors to the New Museology, smugly explains away the complex relationship with the past which the great collections and the museums of the last century reveal.