'Old Masters fit for the future'

April 29 2016

Image of 'Old Masters fit for the future'

Picture: CRASSH

There's an interesting seminar coming up on 10th May at Cambridge University, entitled, 'Old Masters Fit for the Future'. It's run by the Centre for Research in The Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, or CRASSH for short. free to all, and you don't need to register. The seminar features former Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes with the director of the Mauritshuis, Emilie Gordenker. Here's the blurb:

How do you make a collection with old masters and only paintings, in a building which in itself can't be refurbished, relevant and appealing to the audience of today and tomorrow? Wim Pijbes will lead the conversation with Emilie Gordenker on the issues below.

1. The building: architecture and  the extension of the Mauritshuis 

2. The audience:  which tools  you use to attract the audience

3. The collection:  what is the role and how can you 'use' your icons

I don't think that I can make the event alas. But as someone who strives to make Old Masters 'fit for the future', if that's the right term, perhaps I might offer two tips of my own.

1 - Mostly, of course, it's about communication. Those institutions tasked with caring for and promoting Old Masters are often terrible at communicating, on even a basic level, with their potential audiences. When you're dealing with art that is 'old' and created in times past with different cultural languages, the very first thing you have to do is give your audience the means to access it and understand it in today's language. That means not only using clear, uncomplicated language (not art history speak), but making the art available in a way that modern audiences can immediately feel comfortable with. But so many museums, even major ones, have websites that are utterly useless, and in today's world where people visit places online first, before visiting in person, that's fatal.

Bad websites and communication create an instant barrier to Old Masters. The same goes for communication barriers within museums, such as the (happily decreasing) ban on photography. If museums keep trying to make visitors engage with Renaissance art in a Renaissance way, they shouldn't be surprised if attendances fall.  

Happily, Wim Pijbes is I think in a good position to be able to help counter these outdated practices. The Rijksmuseum's website is one of the best of its kind. it has a great online collection database with high resolution images that are free to anyone to use in any way they like. Which is as it should be with publicly owned assets. But the Rijksmuseum is years ahead of other institutions. For example, the Uffizi in Florence has no online collection database, which is extraordinary in 2016.

2 - Once Old Master galleries have sorted out their basic communications, the rest is actually fairly straightforward. With Old Masters were dealing with some of the most beautiful objects ever made, by some of history's most famous and interesting characters. If you let them, they'll sell themselves. All you have to do is help tell their stories in an engaging way.

Sadly, the story telling is too often left to those who are so immersed in 'art history', the modern discipline that is far removed from what we might more simply call 'the history of art', that the type of language used creates another barrier between the audience and the art.

A good example of this is the labelling in the National Gallery in London (which is most other respects, I should point out, is faultless). The National's labelling focuses more on themes within a painting, and these not only assume pre-existing knowledge of the period and artist, but are frankly rather dull. A good museum label should seek to inspire the viewer to look more closely at a work of art, to linger a while and marvel at its beauty. So rather than focus on narratives or social context it should explain more about who painted it, how and when. That's what most people are interested in. 

I always see the Royal collection as an excellent example of good story telling in Old Masters, both on their website and in their exihibitions. Perhaps in part this is because the story of the collection is presented as part of a wider story of the British monarchy and its history.

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