Core course week 3: Universal survey museums

28 Oct
Munich Glyptothek

Munich Glyptothek

Notes from class: 19th October 2010

Man is a classifying animal, and he has the incurable propensity to regard the network he as himself imposed on the variety of experience as belonging to the objective world of things.

Ernst Gombrich, Norm and form.

The third week of the core course took a turn towards archaeology, with Caspar Meyer’s talk: ‘Taxonomies on Display: Archaeology and the Modern Museum’. Caspar teaches in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and discussed the influential role of archaeology in the formation of the modern art museum. Apparently objective arrangements of objects are used to create chronological narratives that are never complete or non-ideological.

We looked at the layout of the British Museum as an example: the progression through ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome; the relegation of near-east and Assyrian cultural artefacts; and the division of objects from one time and place (Ptolemaic Egypt) between different displays depending on their stylistic characteristics. The underlying narrative of stylistic development takes in a ‘scale of softness’ as art moves towards ‘naturalistic’ representation.

The key exchange about the nature of ‘universal survey museums’ in Caspar’s presentation is between Neil McGregor’s defence of the universal nature of the ‘Big 5’ (BM, Hermitage, Met, Berlin galleries and Louvre) museums and their role beyond the national museum; and Marc O’Neill’s response in Museum and Society.

The roots of chronological or systematic display as opposed to the picturesque displays (characterised by symmetry, juxtaposition and aesthetic effect) that preceded them were found around the turn of the eighteenth century in revolutionary Paris, the Vienna Belvedere, and the Munich Glyptothek. Leo_von_Klenze, responsible for the design of the Glyptothek’s display, also advised the V&A at the time when it was in contention for being the British national art museum.

Winckelmann’s role as the ‘father of art history’ is unavoidable: the Glyptothek more or less put his view of the history of sculpture on display. His assumption that Hellenistic Greece was the apogee of creative endeavour, and the role in this he attributed to Mediterranean climate and democratic government made him popular with the French revolutionaries (but didn’t prevent his German sponsors from making an exception for autocracy in northern Europe).

Bringing archaeological theory back in, Caspar suggested that archaeology now sees ‘accurate taxonomy’ as a fallacy (the week’s reading included a chapter from Alison Wylie’s intensely theoretical work on archaeology, Thinking from Things) and that what archaeology finds can’t be ordered without a context for its interpretation.

There was discussion in the class about whether museums now knew better than they once did – reasons suggested for the British Museum’s unchanging displays were the weight of tradition, conservatism of curators and public expectation. Alternative displays, such as the new Ashmolean layout and the Getty Villa were discussed. The Wellcome Collection’s thematic displays were also offered as an alternative way of doing things, but the Pitt Rivers Museum’s arrangement of ethnographic artefacts by function can also arguably deny indigenous and non-western peoples their history.

I was slightly surprised that some people in the class, who considered themselves art scholars, felt that their claim on the museum as a resource for their own learning was as strong as the general public’s (and perhaps irreconcilable). I’ve never worked in a public heritage organisation that didn’t consider the general public its first and most important audience.


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