Saturday 30 November 2013

Museum Loans, not as easy as they say

Alongside the usual "me-me-me" cravings of US lobbyists for the whole world's cultural heritage to be packed up and sent off to a collection conveniently near to them, a timely article from ArtWatch UK ('Bubbles burst', 25 November 2013) sets forward the other side of the story. Basically, it demonstrates that the antiquitist lobbyists have no idea what is involved (so, no surprise there). The article addresses the issues surrounding the current trend for "blockbuster" travelling exhibitions of art, but: 
as more and more of Art’s Flying Dutchmen encircle the globe, an awful lot of holes are appearing in the collections of great museums – as at the Louvre, as Didier Rykner has eloquently demonstrated (“The Louvre Invents the Gruyère Museum” ). This development is perverse as well as regrettable: a chief defence that museums make when seeking funding for expensive acquisitions is that they are needed to fill crucial gaps in a collection.
In the article, Michael Daley talks therefore of "museums gutting themselves to feed international loan exhibitions". It seems US collectors fail to appreciate that a museum's collection should be the reflection of a specific collecting policy, in which each work has (should have) a specific place and purpose to fulfil, packing individual pieces off to America for any time weakens the story the museum has to tell. The increasing numbers of objects loaned out by the Victoria and Albert and British Museums are cited as examples. 
It would seem that nothing in museums is now safe from this international exhibitions jamboree – no work plays too important a role within a collection, or is too fragile, or too unwieldy, to prevent curators from taking a gamble with its welfare (in hope of reciprocal loans and a curatorial buzz). The Metropolitan Museum in New York is one of the most voracious recipient/organisers of exhibitions. It needs to be. Its special exhibitions, which are free, are the biggest justification for the museum’s whopping “recommended” $25 entrance charge (the legality of which is under challenge).
Another phenomenon of our times is the creation on an increasingly large scale of foreign branches of established museums (citing Ruth Osborne, “The Dismemberment of the Louvre: Travels to Louvre Abu Dhabi promise damages and leave Parisian Museum-goers in the Lurch”). This becomes:
part of international “rebranding exercises” in which museum annexes are created in improbable but rich centres so that museums may present themselves as pan-national or global brands (along with Gucci now read Guggenheim). A lot of money is being made and a lot of careers advanced.
The article discusses the problems of getting the objects out of the country. Analogous to the recent Sicilian issue there are problems with loaning objects from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, where first the Scottish Parliament has to overturn "the prohibitions in Sir William Burrell’s bequest on all foreign loans".

Then there are the issues of the vulnerability of many objects in transport. The examples discussed are modern, such as Matisse's collage "The Snail" and mural La Danse. The former has yet to travel (and in the case of such a bulky and fragile work, it is unclear how this will happen), while the latter when "detached from its permanent home at the Barnes Foundation, Merion, and sent off at  [...] it was to return home badly damaged".  

Due to the manner in which they are painted, the paintings of the British artist JMW Turner are exceptionally vulnerable: "He is not a resource that can be exploited indefinitely…” the Turner scholar, Andrew Wilton is quoted as saying. The Boston Museum of Art’s Turner ("Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on") was loaned to Britain's Tate in 2000. On arrival in London, it was examined thoroughly, and its condition was stable. After display in the London gallery, it was repacked and sent back to America/ On arrival there, it was found that found to be damaged and “extremely unstable” , the picture had "reacted significantly to the voyage” and lost flakes of paint. It is reported that the British replied sanguinely "Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable”. So, Daley asks, why are objects like this being loaned out?
There is a really eye-opening expose of another issue at the bottom of this article. This concerns a discussion in 2003 and 2004 of the present state after "conservation" of a painting by Turner ‘Rockets and Blue lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water’ which was once a painting of two steamboats in distress, not of one. The second was removed (together with making huge alterations to the sky, and the removal of storm-driven smoke from the funnels of the original pair of steamboats) by twentieth century restorers apparently after its acquisition by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute of Williamstown, USA. If that is true, this raises the question about the care many exported artworks receive at the hands of US collectors. Why was this painting altered so extensively, and where is the documentation of this work?


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