An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 69

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 17, 2020 - Issue 69

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The new British Galleries at the Met had me wondering just which is my favorite museum that I have visited in the last fifty years? It is a difficult question. I remember a few extraordinary exhibitions, notably the Bugatti exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum some time in the early 1970's. The Tutankhamun Exhibition at the British Museum in 1972 was famous for being the first block buster exhibition. I remember standing in line, but I don't remember that much about the exhibition. I remember visiting a museum in Kuala Lumpur where I saw palm wood used as a veneer for the interior of a room which I thought was pretty amazing and I also remember visiting a museum in Auckland which had a cabinet made from a vast array of New Zealand timbers. But if I change the question slightly, why were these museums memorable, I would have to focus on the context of the experience--my first exposure to Bugatti, the first stand in line museum experience, etc. Try and name your favorite museum experience and then try to figure out why it is--I can almost guarantee that it isn't solely about the museum per se, but about a moment and seeing something that strikes you. Museums are desirous of creating this moment that pings the memory--any way they can. The recent Met exhibition, "Making Marvels" did just this without being a blockbuster exhibition.

This may seem obvious, but that is what the museum is charged with creating--popular exhibitions. Furthermore, they are charged with getting you to not only enjoy the exhibition, but to return to the museum, because you appreciated the earlier exhibition. This is not an easy task and I can see curators around the world trying to figure out shows that will grab attention. Context is always key--the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met is a good example of this--but it helps if you have an interior with a water garden like the Frick. You can say this about most of New York's museums in that they make the museum atmospheric in a pleasing fashion. So what might be wrong in the museum environment? Oddly enough, the biggest thing that is wrong are crowds. This obvious paradox is just why the museum administrators of the world are tearing their hair out. You are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

How is it possible to resolve this problem? I am not certain that it is possible. Museums essentially rely on contributions. Contributions, the large ones, are a function of pleasing major donors. Major donors usually want a say as to how their money is spent. There is an inevitable cycle to this that is difficult to get away from and which places a gilded collar on museum staff, often limiting the range of what might be placed on exhibition. To counter that, many wealthy individuals are moving towards creating their own museums and not contributing to the established older museums. This is not just a New York City phenomenon, but a world wide phenomenon. And the exhibitions are not necessarily focused on historical art, but on the way that we view things. This is context in extremis. Anyone making the trek to Brazil's Inhotim Museum, which is in the middle of nowhere, will understand this. (You can listen to the earth's vibrations.) Or to the Mona Museum in Tasmania (which is a lovely spot, but also in the middle of nowhere) where you will learn new ways of perception.

As grand as the new ideas are, however, I look to the likes of places like the British Museum (and others) to provide me with experiences that go beyond bricks and mortar. What I mean by this is museums that not only concentrate on collecting, but on researching ancillary historical and scientific data and, most importantly, revealing it. More and more museums are doing this on social media, a necessary step for any museum (let alone antique dealers) bringing them into the 21st century. Having said all this, I would like to see my friend, the Met offer more by way of an open (one would have to sign in) forum in which to add to the discussion on a subject. This is context for the future, a way to offer insight from the knowledgeable public that just might spark a new take on how things can be done. Like everything else in this very fast moving world, we have to see the world in a different light and part of that might be in accepting that a museum doesn't always have all the answers. My next submission will have a story that is just the sort of thing that I think the Met should know about, Stay tuned.