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.’

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