The Emergence of the Modern Museum: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Sources

June 12, 2008

The 19th century was the great age of the founding of public institutions, when many of the great private collections passed into public control and when collection, exhibition and research became matters of concern to the expanding state and the debate as to their purpose, profitability and organisation first began. In this volume, Jonah Siegel has brought together a cross-section of the basic documents, official and private, relating to these processes, as they were perceived in Britain at the time. Taken together, they make up a confusing founding charter.

There was always, it seems, a lack of clarity between the museum as an accumulation and as a display. Nowadays, an exhibition requires, above all, a sponsor and some IT. In former times, it required a collection and museum curators who were the temporary and sacerdotal handmaidens of an ongoing body of material that would outlive them. But what were the criteria for inclusion or exclusion? How was the collection to be made simultaneously available and protected? And how were the rival claims of scholars, artists and the terrifying unwashed public to be balanced? It is good to see that these still-unresolved problems are not modern creations but were built into the foundation stones of the very buildings.

Few modern curators could permit themselves the magnificent, pompous self-satisfaction of Sir Henry Ellis, principal librarian (director) of the British Museum, when he appeared before the select committee of 1841 and maintained that virtually no improvements could be made to an institution open to the public three days a week, where children were excluded, the library was closed to public access and two outside privies were available to the 32,000 visitors on peak days.

Parliamentary concern with access lives on, of course, in the newly discovered "social inclusiveness" that seeks to discover simple social benefit from museums. No such nonsense was tolerated in Sir Henry's day. Museums were all about "instruction", the cultivation of morality and the prevention of social anarchy - perhaps not so different after all. An astonishing consensus fills these pages, that the category of "art" is unproblematic, that it is morally good and that its epitome is to be found in Ancient Greece. We have to wait until 1861, in an article by J. Forbes Watson, for the suggestion that Indian sculpture might give it a run for its money. Assyrian and Egyptian statuary was not only grossly inferior, it was downright dangerous to expose the unlettered public to it. Yet earnest inquirers racked themselves endlessly on the horns of a dilemma. If museum-going was to be the thing that enticed the working classes away from public houses on Sundays, how could they be sure it did not also lure the servants away from church?

&#8220By Jonah Siegel
Oxford University Press
408pp
£29.99
ISBN 9780195331134
Published 20 March 2008”

And the church is, of course, the metaphor by which the 19th-century museum is best apprehended, for it was quite shamelessly a shrine to upper-class values and concerns. In their select committee report of 1850, MPs were horrified that artists copying paintings in the National Gallery might be offering the results for sale. What would nowadays be a neglected franchising opportunity was seen, then, as the moneychangers in the temple. Yet curiously, the commercial and industrial utility of museums and galleries to British manufacturers was a button that all advocates made sure to press in their search for funding.

Familiarity is sometimes given an amusing twist. Thus, the Elgin Marbles, removed from sunny Athens, were thought to be at risk from the polluted London air. Yet some arguments are eternal. Thus, there are still only two threads to a purchase proposal. The first says, "We have 99 of these objects already in our collection so we must buy this one to complete it." The second says, "We have 99 of those in the collection but none of these. We must plug this gap at once."

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