It will not have escaped your attention that I have been doing most of the reading for my forthcoming book about museums after it has gone to the printer somewhere in China. There is so much that I haven’t read. At the moment, I am reading a book published earlier this year called The Museum as Experience: An Email Odyssey through Artists’ and Collectors’ Museums, which I thought was a distinctly unpromising title. I was quite wrong. It is an account of how an Italian-Swiss art historian, Dario Gamboni, persuaded his cousin, Libero Gamboni, to explore other private collections before turning his father’s house near Lake Como into a museum. It is the pretext for a really wonderful exploration of museums devoted to the memory of a single person, helped by the fact that it is a dialogue (yes, in emails) between an art historian who is deeply knowledgeable about the history of museums and his cousin who is deeply interested in architecture, with a strong sense of common intellectual curiosity and rapport. They write about art and culture, Goethe and Quatremère de Quincy, as part of a shared European inheritance, to be discussed, shared and explored jointly, in which the reader is able to participate vicariously, which is an extraordinary pleasure, listening through the keyhole of a joint conversation.
This is Soane’s tomb of Samuel Bosanquet in the churchyard of Leyton, before it was taken down in 1957 following vandalism: very nice, slightly exaggerated scrolled volutes and an early version of the telephone box on top:
There is a model for it in wood, still in the Soane Museum.
I have a memory of going to visit Leyton in the early 1990s in search of a monument designed by Sir John Soane. Dorothy Stroud, a member of the committee of the Soane Monuments Trust, remembered it from visiting in 1953, when she took the only known photograph of it, and was presumably unaware that it had been demolished in 1957 by a local building firm, T. R. Hurry, after what the minutes of the Churchyard Committee described as ‘damage by hooligans’.
The church itself it unexpectedly attractive, the legacy of the days when Leyton was a village in the Essex countryside, lived in by prosperous city merchants, including Samuel Bosanquet, a Governor of the Bank of England, who was commemorated by the tomb and whose father, also called Samuel had bought Forest House in Leyton in 1741, now the site of Whipps Cross Hospital.
This is the church as it is now:-
It is surrounded by the tombs of prosperous city merchants, now much overgrown, but some with good neo-Grec detailing:-
I promised Sandy Nairne that I would buy a copy of the book he has produced, The Coincidence of Novembers: Writings from a life of public service by Sir Patrick Nairne, if only to read the chapter about his father’s friendship with Jan Morris, who was a friend and near contemporary. I now have. It’s a wonderful study of the ethos and values of a post-war civil servant with such a strong sense of duty, an ability to write English prose as well as to do good watercolours (his father, ‘the Colonel’, had been at the Slade as well as in the army), a belief in Christian stoicism, wholly lacking in self-interest, and with good skills of succinct analysis. He served in the army, then went to Oxford and into the Admiralty; ended up as Permanent Secretary in the Department of Health and Social Security and then Master of St. Catherine’s College, Oxford; served on the Franks’s Committee. He had all the values which are now apparently looked down on in civil servants – hard work, independent mindedness and an ability to work with Ministers of all parties. It’s clear that his shrewd acumen was an asset, not a handicap, to good government.
We were supposed to have spent last weekend in Bruton for the opening of the exhibition, Gathering, at Make in the High Street, which includes a room full of Romilly’s work. But it was not to be. However, I have just been sent a very nice and thoughtful piece about the work by Emma Crichton-Miller, which includes an installation view:-
It is not often that I am able to add to my repertory of East London buildings, particularly during lockdown, but today I was allowed to peak into Sandy’s Row Synagogue, a great privilege because it is not often open. It was originally built by the Huguenots as L’Eglise d’Artillerie (it is just off Artillery Lane). It was then bought by various versions of the Baptists, before being acquired by Dutch Ashkenazi Jews in 1867 as a synagogue. Its interior is well preserved and deeply atmospheric:-
I see that progressive rent increases mean that the Society of Antiquaries is at real risk of having to leave its home since 1870 in the courtyard of Burlington House. Burlington House was bought from the Duke of Devonshire by the Office of Works in order to house the so-called Learned Societies – the Royal Academy, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries – all of which had previously been housed in Somerset House. The new buildings were designed by R.R. Banks and C. Barry and, in the case of the Society of Antiquaries, include a fine, purpose-built, first-floor library. It has been government policy for the last decade to raise the rent to what is regarded as the market level. But what is the market for the historic premises of a Learned Society ? Another hotel ? I cannot imagine that the Society could really survive elsewhere, so the government is effectively destroying it.
As I work my way through the 28 articles in The Future of the Museum, I am struck by a comment by Philip Tinari, the Director and Chief Executive of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. He says, ‘We at UCCA are not a repository of objects. We are not a citadel for a collection. There is actually a better Chinese term for an institution that mounts works and exhibitions by mainly living artists, a meishuguan, versus an encyclopedic, collecting institution, a bowuguan. We are certainly the former. The English ‘museum’ is not what we are necessarily striving to be’. This, I think, encapsulates the difference between what museums used to be: place for the understanding and experience of collections of objects and works of art; and the new belief that it is more exciting to concentrate on exhibitions more than permanent collections; on the living rather than the dead. Anton Belov, who was trained as a scientist and now runs the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, puts it nicely: ‘Museums need to stop being so high-minded. A lot of people still believe a museum is a temple, even when they advocate for museums being democratic, accessible, and inclusive. In the end, they still behave like a temple. Instead of a temple, a museum should be more like a monastery, if we were to continue the religious metaphor. Part of the point of a monastery is to work on science, research, the archive, exploring deep questions. But many monasteries also became hospitals and schools during past wars and pandemics. They protect people. Museums, too, should think of themselves as monasteries, devoted to this strange thing called art…’
I have been reading a fascinating and impressive collection of interviews with the current generation of museum directors compiled by András Szántó over the summer – yes, this summer – and already published by Hatje Cantz, an amazing achievement of instant publishing. It helps illuminate the recent row over what a museum is, and should be. ICOM proposed that museums should be described as ‘democratizing, inclusive, and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue’ – in other words, privileging their social and political functions far above their responsibilities for acquisition, collection and display. I am interested by the extent to which this is now a newly established orthodoxy: ‘those objects are full of opinions, and the museum needs to be a space where those opinions are given voice’ (Suhanya Raffel); ‘I have three models: artist studios, schools, and hospitals…the museum is a meeting place, a place for education, and a platform for the enjoyment of art and culture’ (Victoria Noorthoorn); ‘I think of it as a civic sanctuary for idealism, for free thought, and for providing a space and place for conversation and for bringing people together’ (Franklin Sirmans); ‘If you’re a museum, you shouldn’t feel like a cupboard. It shouldn’t feel like you’re putting the works in a cupboard that you close and only open sometimes, and after a while not at all because all you want to do is protect them’ (Marie-Cécile Zinsou); ‘We should aim to be pillars of society: public places where you can come to learn, meet other people, share ideas, debate and even disagree’ (Anne Pasternak). I get the picture. They are no longer repositories of works of art, but civic spaces for discussion, debate and community building. But what about those poor old objects, sitting forlornly in the corner, waiting for their voices to be heard ?
I don’t feel I adequately conveyed the depth of my admiration for Jan Morris’s writing in my blog post yesterday. I have been thinking about it overnight. Most writing about architecture was strictly topographical, dominated by Pevsner. James Morris demonstrated in Venice that it was possible to write about a city in terms of its people and its atmosphere, its smells and its cats, not just in terms of its architecture, but its mood, expressed through its history. It was a good lesson. He thanks the British Army for introducing him to Venice and ‘philanthropists in Russell Square, Sixth Avenue, and Cross Street, Manchester’. Who, one wonders, were those philanthropists who paid a Times journalist and his young family to go and live in Venice for long enough to write a masterpiece ?