What to read in March

There’s plenty to read this month, not just my book, but also Paul Greenhalgh’s long awaited book on Ceramic, published by Bloomsbury, and Robin Muir on Lee Miller:-



A conversation about museums

On Friday afternoon, I had a psychologically intense and probing conversation about the current state of museums with Max Anderson, who, like me, ran several – the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Whitney Museum, the Indianapolis Museum and the Dallas Museum of Art. He now runs a weekly podcast out of his office in New York called Art Scoping in which he picks someone to have a wide-ranging discussion. So, this week, we talk about museums, how they’re changing, why they’re changing and whether or not it’s a good thing, including reference along the way to Oliver Dowden and the government’s desire to control museums and whether or not museum directors should still be art historians. It’s the first time I’ve talked at any length about my book. It’s half an hour.



Whitechapel Bell Foundry (72)

While I’m back on the subject of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, I listened to a very good talk last week about how immensely important the Bell Foundry was to the casting of Big Ben. I had not known that the first version of the bell was cast not in London, but in Stockton-on-Tees, by a foundry called John Warner & Sons, But while their bell was being tested in New Palace Yard, it cracked beyond repair and so was melted down. So, a second version of the Great Bell was cast in Whitechapel, instead, taken on a trolley to Westminster, surrounded by cheering crowds, and then hauled up to the top of its tower in the Palace of Westminster, whereupon it too cracked, but luckily not irreparably. So, its particular sonorousness, which rings out everyday on the BBC News is a product of the craft skills of Whitechapel

Big Ben will ring out again later this year. I hope and pray that it will celebrate the restoration of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a British-run working Foundry, not as an American-owned luxury boutique hotel.


Whitechapel Bell Foundry (71)

After a long period of silence from the Secretary of State as to whether or not he will endorse the recommendation of his Planning Inspector and, as most people fervently hope, overturn the approval given by Tower Hamlets in a meeting of seven people to the wrecking of the Bell Foundry, a very disingenuous photograph has appeared in the business section of the Sunday Telegraph of HRH The Prince of Wales ringing one of the bells at Whitechapel with a caption which subtly implies, but does not state, that he might be in support of the destruction of the Bell Foundry.

I regard this as unlikely. He and his mother were great supporters of the Bell Foundry and visited it when it was in the fourth generation of the Hughes family and run as a family business, preserving long-established craft traditions. I cannot imagine that they are overjoyed that the Hughes then sold the business to a New York venture capitalist. Nor do I think the Sunday Telegraph should be lending its support to the recommendations of a notoriously corrupt Labour Council.

Please stand firm, Secretary of State, and allow the Bell Foundry to survive, and not as a hotel.



Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

I’m interested in Martin Bailey’s blog post (see below) about the Sunflowers not because it reveals the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for Van Gogh, but because the painting was acquired as a result of special pleading by Jim Ede, then an incredibly junior curator at the Tate, only just out of the Slade, on behalf of the National Gallery aka The National Gallery of British Art, and that Charles Aitken described himself as Director of the National Gallery tout seul, without apparent reference to Charles Holmes, the Director of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. It shows how symbiotic the two institutions were, and intriguing that such a young curator should have been so successful in acquiring it, when the tastes of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square were still very conservative.



Issues in the Architecture of Art Museums

I’m afraid that readers of my blog are going to have to suffer a month of heavy-duty promotion for my museums book (The Art Museum in Modern Times available from all good bookshops, including John Sandoe), partly because of the amount of interest there seems to be in the fate of museums post-COVID, including at my alma mater, the V&A, and partly because the pistol seems to have been fired on advance publicity, even though the book doesn’t formally appear till March 25th.

There can, of course, be no physical book launch, but I am doing a long planned seminar paper for the Cambridge Architectural History seminar, which is open to anyone, under the title ‘Issues in the Architecture of Art Museums’. To join it, you will need to pre-register here:-


The talk will be about some of the issues that I had to deal with in writing about the history of museums and their architecture over the last eighty years or so, since the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in its new building in 1939. I will be focussing not so much on the issues of museology – how attitudes to the display of art have changed over the period – but more about the problems of writing architectural history in the modern period, the frequent lack of good source material in spite of digitisation, the problems of the secondary literature, which is often published by the institutions concerned, so is seldom critical. I will be using the talk not so much as a presentation of the individual case studies, but more as a way of testing its thematic conclusions which I wrote after completing the book.

For any questions please contact the convenor, Jana Schuster: jana.c.schuster@gmail.com 



My Life at and after the Warburg

Some time ago, I was asked to record thoughts on my life after the Warburg in which I was able to describe my indebtedness to it as an institution, including, most especially, Joe Trapp and my supervisor, Michael Baxandall, neither of whom encouraged me to write like Edith Wharton (see previous blog). Both look a bit grim in their photographs, but they weren’t.



Can museums adapt to a changing world?

For anyone who has access to a Financial Times subscription, there is a long read in today’s paper on four recent books about museums, including I’m pleased to see, my own, not quite yet available (due March 25th.), which is complimented (I think it’s a compliment, but a very ambiguous one) for being written ‘with the crisp elegance found in Baedeker’s Guides, or even Edith Wharton’s writing on Italy’. Then, it is, equally legitimately, castigated for being ‘delightfully free of any critical ideas’. This is no doubt true. It is a celebration of art museums, not a condemnation of museums of archaeology, so I have not dealt with restitution, the hot topic of the moment, and of at least two of the other books.



Alan Bowness (3)

I have just been sent further information and a link (Alan Bowness and Artists’ Lives – Sound and vision blog) to Bowness’s involvement in Artists’ Lives, the best possible resource for recent history and not as well known as it should be. I also listened to Norman Reid on himself and Nick Serota on him too (https://www.bl.uk/voices-of-art/articles/nicholas-serota-norman-reid-as-director-of-the-tate-gallery). Highly recommended.


Alan Bowness (2)

I was intrigued by a picture of Alan Bowness posted yesterday in twitter which showed him standing alongside John Summerson, who I recognised and Norman Reid, who I didn’t (see attached). Summerson had married Hepworth’s sister and Bowness one of her triplet daughters. It led me to a recording of Bowness describing what he thought he was like as a museum director (https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/alan-bowness-on-the-role-of-the-museum-director), presumably drawn from a much longer interview. It is characteristically diffident, describing himself as better as teacher and preacher than museum administrator. No bad thing.