Saturday, 16 June 2012

Gawpworthiness versus Research

In the old days museums were centres of research, public storehouses of material evidence used for the study of human achievement and the natural world. Collections were augmented not only by the accession process but also by collectors, many of whom had devoted their lives, and fortune to amassing large collections of items and studying them, then making them available in an institution where they would be properly curated and studied further.

One such collection was until recently curated by the Hispanic Society of America. It had been put together by Archer M. Huntington , but has recently been sold by that institution "to facilitate future acquisitions".

What kind of thing do they want to buy with the 26 million they got for selling off Mr Huntington's pride-and-joy?

Well, it seems most likely it is not going to be a research collection comparable to Mr H's coin collection. A look at their main hall suggests that the main sort of thing that will be sought will be trophy items which are as gawp-worthy as the Velasquezs, Goyas and El Grecos they have lined up on the walls. Are US museums places for research to serve the public, or are they storehouses of trophies to be merely gawped at by the public? Take for example the Ka Nefer nefer mask in another US museum. What is its function in the collection? How much "research:" had been done on that object before the current scandal broke? Why did nobody do any work on the missing inscription for example? Why did it take outsiders like Ton Cremers to raise the alarm about the object's real origin if the thing had actually been published (and in a book in English) after the SLAM had been "researching" their new acquisition for a decade before? They have a piece of an Auschwitz barrack in Washington, I presume it is properly labelled, but just across the grass from it in the White House, last month a President reading from a staffer's prepared speech lightly called it a piece of a "Polish Concentration Camp" (!). Just what function do the objects which enter museums from private collections fulfil today? If they are merely as gawp-worthy trophies conferring status rather than information, can one use the fact that dugups might one day enter public collections in any way to justify no-questions-asked private collecting? 

Vignette and photo: from CultureGrrl

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