An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 258

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 30, 2023 - Issue 258

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

Museums have been under fire recently for not taking care of what they have, notably the British Museum and the Deutsches Museum in Berlin. In the case of the British Museum, it was a case of a "worker" who took items, many of them not photographed but recognized by a member of the jewelry trade who warned the museum that items were being taken, a warning that was ignored. The Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, resigned as a direct result of the thefts. In the case of the Deutsches Museum, another "worker" is said to have replaced paintings with, according to a spokeswoman for the museum, not very good replicas. The worker was apprehended and received a sentence and a fine for his actions. This kind of adverse publicity may lead to a re-thinking of how museums operate, but any transition will be long in the making--museums, particularly large scale museums, are firmly rooted in the economic and cultural life style of the cities and the countries they are in. Wholesale change of anything will cause an eruption of opinions that will be impossible to align. However, I would ask if the concept of museums--to create a place that celebrates human history in art and artifacts from a wide variety of cultures--is possible to sustain? 

Better minds than mine have tried to wrestle with how museums can be made more--choose your adjective--relevant, accessible, responsible, current, or less Western cultural-centric. A major museum is major for a reason, primarily its collection but also what it does with that collection.  The challenge of running such a complex institution makes the concept of change both hard to accept and very hard to initiate. Just think of some of what goes into running a museum--storage, conservation, exhibitions, special events, security--the list is very long. It is clear that running such an institution, particularly the older, better known institutions, is not for the faint of heart. If this wasn't enough, there is also issue of cultural restitution that lies in wait, where claims are made on items thought to be legitimately acquired either by donors or directly by the museum. Finally, and of major importance, you must keep the donors sweet, a job that even retired diplomats might not want. In other words, the pressure of running a museum almost precludes the ability to change the formula. The system, more or less, works, despite what happened at the British and Dectsches Museums. 

But everything changes with time. The Met and the Victoria and Albert have changed in fine and subtle ways that I could not have foreseen--they have pared down quantity (English furniture exhibits) and gone interactive (at the V&A) and the labels are considerably better. On a bigger scale, the exhibition schedule at the Met is superb, better than I can ever remember. But the kind of change I am talking about is relevance. Does three to four centuries (or more) of English and European furniture matter to the general public? I hate to say it but probably not, though I believe it should, as the way we have lived says a great deal about who we are today. For example, the trade with the Near and Far East changed life in Europe--just imagine life without tea, coffee, spices and silk--the 15th through 18th centuries in Europe were consumed by Chinoiserie (which included all eastern, not just Chinese things). On another front, will museums retain ancient art given the current restitution push and will primitive cultural items continue to be shown? This has become, of course, just another facet of a museum director's job, navigating the intricacies of cultural chauvinism. The Louvre met the challenge by opening a branch in Dubai and the Guggenheim with branches in four cities. (And some things have been repatriated.) And the Met, whilst redoing the Rockefeller wing as I write this, has sent their Oceanic Art on tour to Shanghai and Doha. These are changes that would have been considered unthinkable fifty years ago. I wonder what the next step in the evolution of museums will be? One thing I know is that museums, mistakes notwithstanding, are important in connecting us to how humanity has evolved--it's a huge task, but I'd say they are doing pretty well at it.

P.S. I visited the superb North Carolina Museum of Art on last Friday. For a smallish museum, they are meeting the challenge of relevance head on, connecting art to daily life. They have some sublime masterpieces as well--a great Thomas Moran, some lovely A.N. Wyeths, a sensational Monet, and a sensational portrait of Lucrezia de Medici, a wonderful portrait by Cranach the Younger of Martin Luther and Philipp Melancthon--just to name a few works, let alone some fine African sculpture. Worth the visit!