Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Beware_of_the_Humans1Disambiguation, as they say on Wikipedia. This is not about the novel by the great Kate Atkinson (another Jackson Brodie! Soon! PLEASE!), but about the usually scruffy, draughty, unkempt warrens which tend to lurk behind many of our great national institutions, and in which all the serious work gets done.

In my former life, I had the pleasure of visiting a number of household-name museums and libraries, and was always surprised at the cramped, overcrowded and desperately patched-together conditions in which their staff (from porters to curators) work. This is inevitably the case, I suppose, if your institution was built in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, is Grade I listed, and was not intended to contain twenty-first century numbers of staff, let alone their computers and other vital impedimenta.

British_Museum_Int_Psp Joke

In such a building, where goods in were likely to be delivered by a carrier’s horse and cart rather than by an 80-ton low loader somewhat wider than the attractive Georgian side gate, the ‘tradesmen’s entrance’/postroom tends either to be a modern add-on or a nook or cranny carved out of a much bigger space (as are staff facilities like locker rooms).

Goods in joke

Gracious plaster-decorated ceiling are arbitrarily chopped in half with partitions to create smaller offices and meeting rooms, and often the original Director’s House (beautifully appointed by the standards of its day) no longer contains a director but has been transmogrified into a warren of small rooms and storage spaces.

Soane_Breakfast_Room joke

Basement jokeAnd all too often, short-term efforts to improve the situation have actually made it worse. I know of two institutions (there are presumably dozens more) where work to remove asbestos installed in the 1950s proceeds carefully and at great expense because of the danger, to anyone handling this wonder material of the mid-century, of dying terribly from mesothelioma. The watchword of conservation now appears to be to do nothing irreversible to the painting/sculpture/whatever, so that later experts, with greater understanding and better materials, can take out what you have done and improve on it. It is sad that this is so much more difficult to do with buildings.

Brighton Joke

There is one London museum where the route from the pavement outside the porter’s lodge to the relevant office takes you down so many twisting corridors, through so many doors, outdoors, indoors and even up a little metal bridge (over what?) and down the other side, that I have felt genuine concern about ever finding my way out again, and wished I had a trail of breadcrumbs to leave (but this assumes that there are no mice and rats, something that can’t be relied on…). On the other hand, occasionally you come across a door rather smarter than most: push the button, pass through it, and you are suddenly in a world of order, calm and vitrines full of gorgeous ceramics (and the door, of course, has on the other side, a sign saying ‘No entry: staff only’).

Two visits recently to ‘bequests to the nation’ have concentrated my mind on the logistics of moving items in and out of collections. These days, it’s a world of specialist firms, specially made cases, and huge amounts of bubble wrap (and frayed nerves, I imagine). But what happened in the nineteenth century? Think of Sir Charles Eastlake whizzing round Europe acquiring paintings for the National Gallery, or the shipping of whole collections from France to England whenever the political situation caused the aristocrats of the ancien and later the nouveau régime to transfer their treasures into cash? And still more so the one-way transatlantic movement of European goods to U.S. museums and private collections?

At the Wallace Collection, I attended a talk about their ‘Treasure of the Month’, a most unusual piece of maiolica, made in Venice in 1542, which had been acquired by Richard Wallace himself, probably among a collection of several other pieces sold by the family of Prince Jérôme Bonaparte (ci-devant King of Westphalia) in 1871.

The unusual maiolica plate, almost monochrome and with superbly crafted decoration on both surfaces. (Credit: The Wallace Collection.)

The unusual maiolica plate, almost monochrome and with superbly crafted decoration on both surfaces. (Credit: The Wallace Collection.)

How, in 1871, did you safely transport 300-year-old ceramics safely by land and sea? Were they insured? (I once signed a document agreeing to ensure the safety of a unique manuscript notionally valued at £1,000,000 – I suppose this would have covered repair after accidental damage, but if the thing was destroyed, all the millions in the world could not replace it…)

Were the pieces packed in straw, as was normal for mundane crockery at the time? (I wonder if there are archive data from Wedgwood or Worcester on shipping breakages?) Cotton wool for medical purposes was first used in the 1880s by Birmingham surgeon Sampson Gamgee (who lived near the Tolkien family, you may not be amazed to learn), but it’s less clear when it became the material of choice for packing fragile objects (read here why that turned out not, in fact, to be a good idea).

The raising of 'Cleopatra's Needle' in London, after its perilous sea voyage.

The raising of ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ in London, after its perilous sea voyage.

And then, presumably, into boxes, into cases, on to carts, into trucks on goods trains, on to a boat, across the Channel, on to another train and another cart, to the steps of Hertford House, Manchester Square, London. Did the new owner meet them and unpack them himself before taking them to the vitrine in the smoking room where they are now displayed? Nice fantasy, but no: the history of the Wallace Collection is more complicated than that. (Incidentally, Eastlake encountered Wallace at an auction in Hannover, and realised immediately that he would be a rival ‘against whom [because of his vast private fortune] there is little chance of contending’.)

The other collection I visited was Sir John Soane’s, in the house, at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which he converted – while living in it – to an extraordinary mix of home, office, art gallery and museum, and which he bequesthed to the nation in 1837, on condition that it was maintained exactly as he had left it.

The empty sarcophagus of Seti I in Sir John Soane's museum.

The empty sarcophagus of Seti I in Sir John Soane’s museum.

A fellow visitor asked one of the pleasant and extremely knowledgeable room custodians whether the collection had been moved out of London during the Second World War, but the answer was ‘no’: there were no resources available, and in any case, so much of the content is in fact built into the fabric of the building that it would have been practically impossible. So the house had to take its chance, and thankfully, though bombs fell around it (badly damaging the Royal College of Surgeons, for example), it survived – along with the Canalettos, the original Hogarth paintings of ‘A Rake’s Progress’ and the ‘Humours of an Election’, all sorts of antiquities, architectural models, sketches and drawings, and the Lawrence portrait of a benign Sir John which welcomes you into the building.

One of the glorious Canalettos in Sir John Soane's collection.

One of the glorious Canalettos in Sir John Soane’s collection.

So let’s hear it for the museum, library and gallery staff, working away in non-ideal conditions, and under increasing pressure to cut costs and raise money instead of being able to concentrate on conserving, curating and studying the truly amazing Stuff which, one way or another, is our joint heritage from philanthropic and visionary collectors of the past.

Caroline

Gallery_Interior jokePorters joke

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