Christie’s have just published a list of the books they recommend for spring reading: a book about Carlo Scarpa, with new photographs, much needed; a book about the way Napoleon’s armies commandeered paintings to create the Louvre; a book about Louis Kahn, with photographs by Cemal Emden, the best; AND (keep scrolling) The Art Museum in Modern Times on cue for COVID. I like the idea that I sat down in March and wrote my book as a response to the challenges of Coronavirus and am only too happy if it gives it timeliness. Beautifully illustrated it is ! And beautifully designed and produced.
I have found myself engaged in a surprisingly animated discussion on Twitter – at least, by my standards – on whether or not it is a good thing that museums have shifted from the idea of learning – absorbing and imbibing information about art and the world in a broadly passive/receptive way – to a belief and interest in visitors’ ‘experience’ – the idea that autonomous individuals don’t just absorb information, but construct it according to their own desires and interests: a more active idea as to how people experience museums. It may be that the idea of ‘experience’, as used in The Experience Economy, has become a cliché. But it is still a way of describing a big shift in the way that museums now think about visitors. I like the comment of the person who said ‘[Museums] forget they aren’t the centre of people’s lives, but one modest sausage roll at the buffet table of life’.
For reasons which will be obvious, I have spent time today thinking of Wilmington, Delaware where we spent two months in the summer of 1988 exchanging not only our house, but our car as well with Henry and Sue Moncure. Joe Biden had already been a Senator for fifteen years. What a relief it is to have a President who is representative of that aspect of America which I have always admired.
We were sent an invitation last night to watch a film made in 1981 by Margy Kinmonth about the visit of Jack Yeats and John Millington Synge to Connemara to report the effects of rural poverty and the famine in the so-called ‘Congested Districts’ for the Manchester Guardian. The film was very low budget and all the better for it: because it was made 40 years ago on location in Connemara, it was astonishingly evocative, as if it was them in person, with some of the accents barely comprehensible. The voiceover was done by John Huston who was apparently dying and summoned Margy to the Savoy Hotel where he read the entire script there and then. The film had faded, but has been repurposed. It won lots of prizes at the time and deserved to (https://store.foxtrotfilms.com/To_The_Western_World/p731917_3245763.aspx).
Now that the Inigo website has gone live, I can credit the photographer, Elliot Sheppard, with the excellent photographs not only of the interiors – not an easy thing to do so atmospherically – but of me as well. He was responsible for the big looming close-up which has been a feature of the blog for the last few months and this post is a way of thanking him for allowing me to reproduce it.
A new website and business has been launched today by the founders of The Modern House, which has done such a brilliant job of making the rich variety of modern architecture better known. Now they plan to do the same for historic houses. Our house is featured, but it’s not for sale.
The book on the Hermitage is very good on the peculiar character and culture of curators, which in some ways was peculiar there because dealing with western European works of art was both necessary, but at the same time forbidden, and gave the privilege of travelling outside Russia. Of course, I now realise that the reason the Impressionists were in the attic was because they too were particularly disapproved of, relics of the State Museum of New Western Art which had been opened in Moscow in 1923 and closed by Stalin in 1948, half of it exiled to Leningrad.
There is a very good description of the difference between academic art history and the experience of art developed in a museum. ‘If you are in the slightest degree sensitive to art, then, when you carry this painting somewhere, when you look at it in inclined sunlight, look at the canvas’s backside, discuss it with restorers, these things turn out to transgress conceptual frameworks…The pieces are endlessly more complex. And all the considerations of style, of tendencies in history of art, are so helpless at explaining anything…’
My next work of museum study, a form of travelling in the mind, is a recent book about the Hermitage, called Art of Memories: Curating at the Hermitage, written by a French sociologist, Vincent Lépinay, who spent some time as Director of a new Center for Science and Technology Studies at the European University at St. Petersburg, and was instantly given the task of examining the nature of the Hermitage by its long-standing director, Mikhail Piotovsky, whose father, Boris, was director before him.
The Hermitage is huge and somehow unknowable: still as much Catherine the Great’s palace as a twenty-first century museum, with room after room after room of great treasures, right up into the attics where the Impressionists used to be displayed with windows wide open and the curtains flapping. Its first catalogue of paintings appeared in French in 1773. By the time of the publication of the first Russian catalogue in 1797, there were already 4,000 paintings. Now, it would take eight years to look at every object, allowing a minute each (most people apparently spend an average of only twenty eight seconds looking at works of art in museums).
I am looking forward to talking to Tim Marlow about my book about new museums. There was a time when I thought of including John Pawson’s new Design Museum as a case study, but in the end narrowed the field to art museums. But it fits the recent narrative: big on the visual excitement of public circulation space, growing from small building to big, treating grand architecture as part of the museum experience (and one of the best shops):-
One of the consequences of having been so involved in all the discussions and debates round the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is that I am much more alert to the way that historic building controls are being swept aside by the application of free market principles to planning and development and a view that the preservation of the past is just an irritation and encumbrance put in the way of inevitable urban change. Recently, one of the city planners was quoted as saying that there used to be idiots who wanted to keep the old alleyways of the City and some of the old restaurants, shops and barbers, but now everybody could see the benefit of only having big high rise office developments and chain stores, like every other great city in the world. I found myself thinking, I am one of those idiots. I thought that the City had traded on being distinctive and special, a place of trust with its roots in the past, not just a pastiche of every other bland, corporate city centre everywhere else in the world.
This is merely a way of introducing the fact that I have been alerted to the risk of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, which opened in 1701, being overwhelmed – dwarfed – by two gigantic, insensitive office developments which will tower over it blocking its access to natural daylight.
There is no longer an opportunity to object to the office building in Creechurch, which has already been stopped once before Coronavirus and should surely be stopped by the City’s planning committee when it meets in April. But there is still time to object to the even bigger one down at the end of Heneage Lane in Bury Street:-
Just as important, they are keen to raise the profile of the Bevis Marks Synagogue and awareness of its historic interest. I am happy to do what I can to help.