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 ?
I am so sad to hear of the death of Jan Morris, a writer I have greatly admired. I was first aware of her as the writer of her – at that time, his – book on Oxford, published in 1965, but even more as the author of Venice, such a lyrical and deeply informed book about the character of the city, which sat on the shelf alongside Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide. Then I read his trilogy on Pax Britannica with enthusiasm, so richly visual in the way it described the consequences of Empire around the globe, although in a way which now would presumably be regarded as absurdly uncritical. She was painted for the NPG by Arturo di Stefano, which I reproduce below and hope that I am allowed to in her honour:-
After nearly four years of fighting to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry from its ignominious fate of being turned into a boutique hotel, I have been sent a memento of my very first visit on 25th. February 2017, organised by Sue Stamp of the Friends of the RA, who took a photograph of me taking photographs of the foundry. I was blown away by the working interiors and have always suspected that possibly the Commissioners of Historic England have never visited, which has made them so oblivious and disregarding of its significance:-
As part of my background reading to understand more about the intellectual significance of Warburg, I acquired a copy of Edgar Wind’s The Eloquence of Symbols which includes the review that Wind wrote for the TLS of Gombrich’s intellectual biography of Warburg, published in 1970. It is the most astonishing and powerful piece of invective, written by Wind who was Panofsky’s first student at Hamburg, met Warburg in 1927, and was key to the transfer of the Warburg Library to London. He was clearly very protective of Warburg’s legacy, whereas Gombrich joined the Institute after Warburg’s death and was obviously in many ways hostile to Warburg’s thinking, his interest in astrology and magic, in psychology, and didn’t want to deal with the some of the intellectual complexities and undercurrents of Warburg’s life and mind. I recommend it for an understanding of Warburg’s influence on later scholarship.
I was very pleased to have been asked to write about why the publication of Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas is, for me at least, the big publishing event of the year (see below). Warburg’s ideas and beliefs about the transmigration of images from antiquity across cultures preoccupied him in his last two frenetic years after the opening of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg had opened next door to his house, mounting images on forty screen ranged round the elliptical main room of the library. Ernst Gombrich was hired in 1936 to oversee its publication, but thought the task impossible. So it is wonderful that it is now freely available, as well as being the subject of two recent exhibitions in Berlin which I had planned to visit in March, but like so much else in this year have only visited online, but of which the book is a physical memorial, available for future study.
I follow the fortunes of Factum Arte with the utmost interest, not least because they are the people who have been involved in the bid to take over the Bell Foundry and to keep it as a working foundry. At the public Inquiry, Raycliff’s lawyer did everything in his power to pour cold water on their business plan, so I was pleased to see a piece in this morning’s Guardian by Jonathan Jones making clear how important their work is – key to the protection and preservation of artistic monuments round the world, from Egypt to Nigeria and Brazil, not to forget the Victoria and Albert Museum:-
For those of you who are interested in museums and how they operate and still have the stamina for online discussions (after nine months it may be waning), I am doing a discussion on December 1st. with Dinah Casson and Frances Spalding about Dinah’s forthcoming book Closed on Monday: Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which is due to be published any minute by Lund Humphries (https://www.lundhumphries.com/blogs/mba/behind-the-scenes-at-the-museum-with-dinah-casson). It’s a lovely thoughtful, reflective book, informed by the fact that she has worked with so many, and in so many different types of museum around the world and knows them intimately, but not uncritically. This is an invitation to the discussion:-
I’ve just finished chairing an event with Antony Gormley in discussion with one another. There were more synergies/crossovers than I had expected: born within a year of one another (Gormley 1950 Arad 1951); both children of the 1960s – freewheeling, inventive, creative; both resisting the categorisation of their medium. Arad trained in architecture, but only practised for a year before setting up his studio as an inventor/designer in Covent Garden; Gormley spent three years in India before going to Central School, Goldsmith’s and the Slade. Both determined to resist categorisation, liking working with others, doing things provocatively and experimentally; both nearly equally impossible to chair, because so full of ideas.
The last session of the museums conference that I was able to attend was on the age-old, but still highly contentious issue of the future of the curator, with a good and interesting range of speakers from institutions in both history and contemporary art, chaired by Andrew McClellan. Jessica Morgan, a former curator of the Tate, now director of the Dia Art Foundation, argued for the need for new skills and less adherence to traditional art historical expertise. There was an occasional presumption that curators hold disproportionate authority in the ways that works of art are acquired and interpreted. My own experience is that curators increasingly feel marginalised by the growth in other areas of the museum – digital, marketing, finance, learning, all of which require different forms of specialist professional expertise which subtly, but significantly displaces curatorial knowledge, not least in pay scales. I say this as a non-curator.