What are museums for?

May 31 2011

In the Art Newspaper, Maurice Davies tries to find the answer in three new books on museums and collections. They are:

  • Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the Crisis of Cultural Authority, Tiffany Jenkins, Routledge, 174 pp, $95 (hb)
  • Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, James Simpson, Oxford University Press, 204 pp, £25 (hb)
  • The Best Art You’ve Never Seen: 101 Hidden Treasures from Around the World, Julian Spalding, Rough Guides, 288 pp, £14, $22.99 (pb)
To be honest, the first two sound a bit of a yawn. There's a lot of navel-gazing in the museum world when it comes to deciding 'what we're for'. Nothing beats the British Museum's founding mission statement: 'for the entertainment of the curious'.

Nevertheless, Julian Spalding's book is a timely plea to his museum colleagues to stop bein so retentive, especially over things like climactic controls. He argues that: [More below]
“while claiming to be the custodians of art, nearly all museums bury countless treasures in storerooms.” Spalding challenges the orthodoxy that leaves most works on paper “hidden in boxes in museum print-room stores.”


Spalding says: “This book is a plea for the right to see the great art of the world” and enthusiastically encourages his readers to travel to see an eclectic selection of works of art from countries including China, India, Peru, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and Japan, as well as Europe and North America.

He directs travellers to lesser visited places such as the Portinari Chapel in Milan and the “tiny” Sculptured Stone Museum in Meigle, 15 miles north of Dundee. He highlights rare survivors of entire traditions of art, such as life-size funeral effigies housed at Westminster Abbey Museum in London. He promotes less fashionable artists, especially ones overshadowed by abstraction, such as Norman Rockwell: “Sadly, there are ­virtually no Rockwells in public collections, though they were, in their time, far and away the favourite modern paintings of the American public”. Spalding reckons “popularity made it suspect: modern art was supposed to disturb the public—not bring them with it.”

He is particularly dismissive of conceptual art, instead praising the work of artists like Peter Angermann, who suffered under the tutelage of Joseph Beuys at art college in Düsseldorf in the 1960s, eventually in 1986 taking the step “by then bizarrely radical, of painting in the open air…The contemporary art world has become a self-referential court sustained by public funds and a few rich dealers and collectors."

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