Historical perspectives on museum research

Part of the reason why I became interested in how research operates within the art museum was that I found it very confusing. My sense was that the dominant model of research was of a specialized activity, based largely around the collection, which curators were tasked with undertaking. However, my experience was that curators were rarely able to commit time to collection-focused research. At the same time there was a wealth of other activity happening across the museum that often went unrecognised as ‘research’. Amongst others, conservators, learning team members, those working in the library and archive and colleagues in marketing were regularly engaged in rigorous modes of enquiry, often practice-based, that led to the generation of new insights for themselves and others. Yet this work was at times overlooked in conversations and publications around research. So why is the model of the scholar curator so dominant?

In trying to find answers to this I have recently been examining the history of museums to see if historic constructions of research can help illuminate how current discourses are operating. My investigations suggested to me three historic agendas that help formalise the central role of the ‘expert’ curator and the primacy of curatorial research in justifying the choice of the objects in a collection and to some extent the museum itself. Below is a whistle-stop tour of these ideas.

  1. Research as a means of conferring status on the collector

The scholar curator first emerges in the service of those wealthy Europeans who, from the 15th century onwards were acquiring rare and precious objects to demonstrate their power, status, erudition, and taste.  For example, Cosimo de Medici, the head of the powerful Florentine family relied on the advice of the artist Donatello to acquire paintings for the palace he had built in 1444. The palace itself and the collection of objects within it constituted a visible demonstration of the family’s political and financial dominance.  Therefore, from the earliest formulations of the museum, the quality of the collection and the judgements on which it is founded are of vital importance as a reflection of the owners themselves.

2. Research as a way of ‘ordering’ the world

The 16th century sees the growing popularity of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – private collections of miscellaneous objects that presented a sometimes eclectic picture of the world. However, when we reach the 17th century we see the establishment of private collections whose purpose was actively to assist scholars. The drive to collect and taxonimise was aligned with the Enlightenment ambition to establish a universal science based on order and classification. Objects from antiquity and specimens from nature in private collections were examined and rationalised to increase knowledge of humanity and the wider world at that time.

One such individual was Dr John Lettsom (1744 –1815) whose estate encompassed the house where I live in South London. An eminent physician, who established the Medical Society of London, he also acquired sizeable botanical and geological collections through financing expeditions. He also researched and published.

The naturalist’s and traveller’s companion, containing instructions for collecting and preserving objects of natural history and for promoting inquiries after human knowledge in general. John Lettsom, 1774

In several cases it was these private collections with the associated scholarship undertaken by private individuals that provided the sources for the ‘university museum’. Many will be familiar with John Tradescant the 16th century British naturalist, who created a large collection of artifacts and natural specimens. This collection became the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum, the first university museum. Likewise, the collector and ‘Grand Tourist’ Richard, seventh Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, bequeathed his works of art and library to the University of Cambridge in 1816, seeking to create a place of learning as well as a gallery

This trend away from the private ownership of collections was accompanied by the growing involvement and greater status of expert ‘keepers’ whose job in part was to establish and maintain collections for use as educational resources. And whereas research had been regularly undertaken by scholarly amateurs, within art museums increasingly it was connoisseur art dealers and curators who were tasked with creating new taxonomies of schools and histories.

3. Research to create and uphold a dominant narrative

Expanding on the collection as an educational resource, a further development sees the creation of the national museum in the 18th and 19th centuries. Originally associated with Enlightenment ideals of knowledge and rational judgment bringing about a just and ‘better’ society, the national museum was imagined as a ‘utopian’ space providing the ‘best’ of science and culture to educate and improve the populace.

What constitutes the ‘best’ of art and culture is needless to say inextricably linked to the presentation of a particular national narrative through objects. We can see this playing out in the early collection displays within the Louvre Museum in Paris founded in 1793 and conceived as a centre of scholarship for the whole world. The chronological sequence of paintings displayed culminated in the French School, thereby affirming the principle of progress on which the French Revolution was based. At the same time, the presentation of the collection was consciously designed to communicate that the future of art belongs to France. Museums and their rationally organized collections thus offered an irresistible opportunity for newly formed nation states to present a positive national narrative.  Consequently, we have the opening of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (1808), Prado in Madrid (1819) and the National Gallery in London (1824), amongst others.

We can see therefore that by time we enter the 20th century, curators working within museums to build, maintain and display their collections are tasked not only with demonstrating the taste, maturity and status of the owners (be they individuals or nation states) but also justifying the irrefutable rationality of these collections. At the same time their expertise is relied upon to tell a powerful narrative that unites these two agendas, thereby validating the very existence of the museum. The writer Anthony Shelton makes this point beautifully in identifying that the expert curator brings their knowledge and rigorous research processes to the object thereby ensuring the integrity and authority of the collection. This becomes a self-serving cycle, whereby ‘curatorship guarantees the knowledge-value of material culture, whilst the knowledge-value of material culture reciprocally guarantees the curatorial authority on which museums are based.’

Having explored this history, the dominance of the scholar curator as the legitimate researcher within the museum makes more sense to me. However, as regular readers of this blog will know, that does not mean I think that this model is appropriate for the 21st century museum. Museums clearly need collection-focused research undertaken by experts, but that is not the only form of research that should be (and is being) done within these complex organisations.

A longer version of this text formed the basis of a talk I gave recently at Cambridge University. A recording of this talk can be found here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: