Thursday, 5 April 2018

Museum Professionals

by Nicholas Penny, from article in recent issue of Apollo

Among museum professionals, a curator has for many decades been understood as someone who is responsible for the care, display and interpretation of specimens, artefacts, or works of art in the permanent collection of a museum or gallery. During the last 20 years, temporary exhibitions have become increasingly central to the activities of almost all institutions of this kind, and many curators are now largely absorbed by the mounting of such exhibitions. Curators are only likely to attract media attention by this means, and such impresario curators are almost always the ones who are proposed as future directors. Indeed, a curator is now more commonly understood to mean someone who organises temporary exhibitions of the visual arts, whether in a private or a public institution

It has often been argued that senior administrators are better qualified than traditional curators to serve as museum directors, but nowadays the trend is to appoint impresario curators, preferably those who are comfortable with contemporary art and, if a new building is planned, have some confidence in dealing with architects. Directors with no curatorial experience and without the related expert knowledge of art tend to diminish the value of such experience and expertise out of their own insecurity. The results can often be devastating, even if, being of little interest to journalists, whose attention is usually focused on the exhibitions programme, they generally go unnoticed by the public.

There are fewer internationally recognised experts among the curators of London’s museums than was the case 25 or 50 years ago. The curatorial staff in regional museums in this country possess only a fraction of the knowledge of their collections than one would have found then. There are major North American museums in which only one curator cares for the historical collections, where there were formerly four or five. At the convivial gatherings of international museum directors that I attended between 2008 and 2015 the voices of directors who openly disparaged the scruples of traditional curators and the concerns of conservators were increasingly confident – and indeed the original motive for such gatherings was precisely to make international lending easier, that is, to promote the increasing emphasis on loan exhibitions within institutions that were formerly chiefly associated with permanent collections.

Senior administrators have not often been appointed as directors, (although, as mentioned, their eligibility has often been discussed) but their status within the museum hierarchy (which includes IT, HR, PR, and many other new growths) has increased hugely and they will be detected in the shadow of any impresario director. Sometimes they are loyal, self-effacing and truly efficient. The model, significantly, is one which is more common in the performing arts. Curators are thus ‘relieved’ of many of their former responsibilities, encouraging the trend whereby some become ‘scholars in residence’ and others concentrate on exhibitions. The admirable special training now available in both in the US and the UK to equip curators with more experience of administration and management has been designed to combat this state of affairs, and excellent directors will be found among the curators who have benefited from such courses. But there is no reason not to look elsewhere as well.

In the 19th century it was widely believed that any director of the National Gallery in London must be a practising artist, and the same applied in equivalent institutions throughout Europe. It is easy to imagine – and should not be so hard to find ­– a director with an academic background, especially perhaps a historian, who values the experience and knowledge of his or her curators.

In a large museum with many different departments a curator will be suspected of having a prejudice in favour of her or his own special field of experience and expertise, or at least an inclination to give priority to art over archaeology, for example, or modern and contemporary preference over everything else. Even in a gallery with a collection consisting only of European art there are often no curators with the wide interests and sympathies that would enable them to assess the needs of the collection as a whole. The necessary range may also be more easily found outside the curatorial body. On balance the rise of the impresario director should be seen as more of a threat than the appointment of someone without traditional curatorial experience.

But a threat to what? To the ideal of the museum and gallery as something created for posterity and not merely for today’s public (or the youth of today); to the ideal of the museum as a place to transcend the fashionable rather than to revel in it; to the ideal of the gallery as a place where repeated contact with the permanent collection is carefully balanced with the attractions of temporary exhibitions; to the ideal of museums and galleries as places where people can educate themselves, places which are therefore equivalent to libraries as well as to theatres.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

London Lammassu

The latest and in many ways the best occupant of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is this version of the Assyrian lamassu statue. 

Best partly because its base dimensions match those of the vacant plinth, so it feels and looks right for its place, as also does its bulk and height, comparable to the equestrian figures for which such plinths were made; chiefly because of its implicit lament for the lost heritage of Syria owing to the current violence there.

The only issue is its orientation: so that the majesty of the sculpture can only be seen from a slightly awkward angle, looking up from the roadway to the west.  The side facing into the square bears the explanatory inscription in red gilt cuneiform script - aesthetically pleasing but secondary and not informative in itself.   The appropriate plinth, in the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, is however not vacant, so this is where the tin-can lamassu must stand

As a great addition to the fourth plinth sequence.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

the first Black Icelander

Talking of Iceland, there is  the history of Hans Jonatan-  here as published on Wikipedia
Hans Jonatan (1784–1827)  was the subject of an important test case in Danish law on slavery, and a groundbreaking DNA study. Fleeing to Iceland, he became one of the first people of colour to live in Iceland. A biography of Jonatan by Gísli Pálsson was published in Icelandic in 2014. An English edition was published in 2016. Danish and French editions are forthcoming.

Hans Jonatan was born into slavery in 1784 on the plantation at Constitution Hill on the island of St Croix in the Caribbean, which had become a Danish colony in 1733 when purchased by the Danish West India Company from France. His paternity is uncertain, but Pálsson argues in his biography that his father was a white Dane, Hans Gram, who was the secretary of his owners for three years; his mother was Emilia Regina, a black 'house slave' who is first recorded in 1773 at the St Croix plantation of La Reine, where she was presumably born. In 1788, Emilia had a daughter, Anna Maria, this time by a black man, Andreas, who at the time was a house slave too; but their fates are not recorded.   The details of the West African ancestry of Hans's mother were unknown prior to a genetic study.
Hans Jonatan was owned by Heinrich Ludvig Ernst von Schimmelmann and his wife Henriette Catharina.  In 1789 the Schimmelmann family moved to Copenhagen as the plantation business took a downturn, bringing Emilia Regina and, later, Hans Jonatan with them. Not long afterwards, Heinrich died, bequeathing Hans to his widow Henriette Catharine. In 1802, at the age of seventeen, Hans Jonatan escaped from Copenhagen to join the Danish Navy and fought in the Napoleonic War, for which he received recognition.

Later, when he was detained by the police, he and his lawyer argued in 1801 before a Copenhagen court under judge Anders Sandøe Ørsted that although slavery was still legal in the Danish West Indies, as slavery was illegal in Denmark, Hans Jonatan could not be kept as a slave. However, in the case Generalmajorinde Henriette de Schimmelmann contra mulatten Hans Jonathan 1802, Ørsted sentenced him on 31 March 1802 to be returned to the West Indies.

Hans Jonatan escaped, and his fate remained unknown to the Danish administration. It was only around the 1990s that the rest of his story was pieced together. In 1802 he arrived in Djúpivogur in Iceland. One of the first records of Hans Jonatan after 1802 is in the diary of the Norwegian cartographer Hans Frisak for 4 August 1812:
The agent at the trading post here is from the West Indies, and has no surname ... but calls himself Hans Jonatan. He is very dark-skinned and has coal-black, curly hair. His father is European but his mother a negro.
Frisak hired Hans Jonatan as a guide. Hans lived as a peasant farmer at Borgargarður working at the Danish trading station in Djúpivogur. He took over the running of the trading post in 1819. By February 1820, Hans had married Katrín Antoníusdóttir from Háls. They had three children; two survived childhood, and their living descendants now number nearly nine hundred. Hans Jonatan died in 1827.  His grave is unlocated.

His grandson, wife and their five children are shown in this family photo from around 1900.

In 2018, scientists achieved a genetic breakthrough when they reconstructed a part of Hans Jonatan's genome solely using samples from his descendants. This was the first time that a human genome had been reconstructed without using physical remains. For the study, 788 of his descendants were identified, and DNA samples from 182 family members were taken. The study was aided by the extreme rarity of African heritage in Iceland, the homogeneity of the country's population, and its comprehensive genome database. The samples were analyzed against known signs of African DNA, recreating about 38% of his mother's DNA profile and thus 19% of his own.

 It was determined that that Emilia Regina's ancestral origins were from a region now encompassing Nigeria, Benin, and Cameroon.  So her forebear must have been captured or sold to slavers on the African coast and shipped to the Caribbean in the early or middle years of the 18th century.

May Morris's vacation journals

the handwritten vacation journals that I was quoting from a while back, recording the summer excursions of May Morris and MF  have now been deposited with the Society of Antiquaries in London, which owns and manages Kelmscott Manor.  This is an appropriate home, because all the holidays were taken while the couple were living at Kelmscott, and by virtue of their ownership of the Morris estate, the Antiquaries own the copyright to May's unpublished writings.

This photo shows Stefan Johannessen, Icelandic ambassador to the UK, viewing the journal describing one of their visits to Iceland - highlight of May's later life - together with the photos taken there, postcards and business cards presented by Icelanders they met.  Their travels are recorded step by step, May taking special care to note down the correct names of places and people as far as she could, while also aiming to retrace her father's routes, to see what he had seen.

For now, as Kelmscott Manor is planning a major refurbishment programme, the journals will remain in the Antiquaries' library in Burlington House, available to the public by appointment, although subject to conservation and professional care.


Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Elizabeth Siddal Beyond Ophelia


It's time that Elizabeth Siddal had an exhibition of her own art works - some decades after the one I curated at the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield.
So good news that the team at Wightwick Manor in Warwickshire is showing a fair selection from now until the end of the year.
Lizzie, as she is familiarly known to all fans, came into the Pre-Raphaelite world as a model, most famously of course for Millais's Ophelia. I discount the idea of discovery in a milliner's shop: though at least one of her sisters worked as a dressmaker and Lizzie probably did the same,  she had aspirations to art and  her first known modelling job was for Walter Deverell, whom she doubtless met at the School of Design where he taught and she attended classes, as she did later at Sheffield Art School.
When, after working for Millais, Holman Hunt and probably Charles Collins, Lizzie went to sit for Rossetti, she lamented that 'no man cares for her soul', only for her availability as a model.  He was the first person to respond to her aspirations, taking her under his wing as student as well as prospective partner.  He drew her at the easel and drawing board.
After her death  Gabriel collected together all her own watercolours and drawings, having the latter photographed for memorial albums.

Sadly, Gabriel never taught Lizzie much in the way of technique, anatomy or composition, so her works were genuinely naïve.  They convey emotional force, often articulated through paired couples. 
Many have a curiously Blakean air, and not only when the figures are similarly boneless.
The range of subjects is relatively wide, but notably focussed. 
Firstly on moments relating to Tennyson's early poems, when Gabriel was pushing for Lizzie to be included among the illustrators of the Moxon edition.  Here are images from Tennyson's St Agnes Eve [not to be confused with Keats' Eve of St Agnes] and the allusion to St Cecilia in  The Palace of Art.  Another is Lizzie's early image for the Lady of Shalott.
Secondly on traditional ballads, for a projected book based on Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Lizzie's copy of which survives.  These include St Patrick Spens, Clerk Saunders and May Margaret, and the Lass of Lochroyan.
Several other subjects are devotional - the Nativity, Angels, the self-sacrificial daughter of Jephtha. 
Then there are those illustrating Rossetti's poems: The Blessed Damozel, Sister Helen, The Woeful Victory. 
And some whose subjects are yet unidentified, including these two:
one where in a forest a ghost figure frightens a woman; and one where lovers listen to dark-skinned girls playing an exotic musical instrument.  it is likely that both also have literary sources - which surely ought to be guessable?
Wightwick Manor has a relatively large collection of Siddal's works because in 1961 Rosalie Mander, chatelaine of the Manor and author of a biography of Rossetti, bought them at auction.
 The exhibition BEYOND OPHELIA :  A CELEBRATION OF LIZZIE SIDDAL ARTIST AND POET is curated by Hannah Squire and on display in the Daisy Room at Wightwick until Christmas Eve.
a slightly clearer image of the ghost in the forest:

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Blake in Sussex

 Now at Petworth until 25 March is a sort of capsule exhibition on the work of William Blake with special focus on his brief time on the Sussex coast in a subsequently famous cottage at Felpham, where, as in this image, he continued to see visions of angels in the sky - a different view to their manifestation over the rooftops of Lambeth.

TThe cottage is quite a contrast to the exhibition site Petworth House, one of the grander English mansions abutting a tame village amid extensive parkland, very appealing on a wintry day.

Which concentrates  the exhibition's intense presentation in two darkened rooms, filled with disparate works and objects, each conveying an aspect of Blake's career, aspirations, visual imagination, artistic endeavours, skills.

There's a lot to pack in, and for the visitor to take in, but all selected with intelligent care. Including the series of tiny vignettes engraved to illustrate an edition of Virgil's pastoral poems and convincingly linked to the Sussex landscapes that Blake found all round.  

They link so clearly with work by Samuel Palmer based on the countryside at Shoreham, not so very far from Petworth and of comparable appearance.

Then there are also the original court records from Blake's arrest and arraignment in 1804 on charges of sedition for allegedly shouting 'Damn the king, damn all his subject, damns his soldiers, they are all slaves; when Bonaparte comes it will be cut-throat for cut-throat; I will help him' when getting into a scuffle with two off-duty soldiers he found in his garden at Felpham.   Devils in place of angels, really.   Fortunately, the magistrates who heard the case included Petworth's owner the Earl of Egremont, and the jury acquitted Blake, perhaps perceiving that he was not entirely, or not always, sane.  Though he no doubt meant what he said - which was certainly seditious.


Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Birth of Art Photography

Duchess of  Cambridge with Photos Curator Philip Prodger and NPG Director Nick Cullinan at Victorian Giants.  Photo: Noah   Goodrich

Alongside and in some ways ahead of Pre-Raphaelite painting came art photography – images with aesthetic intent as well as visual recording.  During the second half of the nineteenth century the two art forms, polychrome and monochrome, intersected and impacted on each other.
From March to May Victorian Giants at the National Portraits Gallery explores four pioneers of Victorian art photography – two female, two male.  The women are Julia Margaret Cameron (of course, with claims to being the overall leader in the field) and Clementina Hawarden, who with eight surviving children was professional enough to exhibit prize-winning studies before dying prematurely aged 42.
The men are Lewis Carroll of ‘Alice’ fame (of course, and more properly Charles Dodgson) and Oscar Rejlander, who enjoyed some attention in 2013 around the bicentenary of his birth but deserves more for his innovative practices.
The exhibition, curated by Philip Prodger, sadly outgoing NPG head of photograph collection, is full of familiar and less familiar images, many of girls in roughly the same age group as Waterhouse’s now-controversial water nymphs.  While the photographs are chaste, in the sense of being decently clothed and not evidently presented for male pleasure, it will be interesting to see how they are received in today’s cultural moment  especially those by Carroll, who had an undeniable paedophilic gaze.

Clementina Hawarden is the least-known of the featured Victorian Giants. For a full account of her photographic practice see  Suzanne Fagence Cooper's recent blog