Sunday, September 17, 2023

How Many Is Too Many?

You have probably read about the theft from the British Museum where a curator has been accused of taking 2,000 uncatalogued pieces from the museum and selling them on Ebay. One individual commented that “if the Elgin Marbles weren’t so gosh darned heavy, we would probably find them on the Portobello road” (a large market of “antique, bric-a-brac and vintage clothing” in London).

My point, however, is that 2,000 sounds like, and is, a very large number but it is only one quarter of one percent of the museum’s 8 million objects. Does any museum need that many pieces?

My wife and I have had this discussion for roughly half a century! It all started when she was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum and I asked if the museum needed 1.5 million objects in their collection. As a dealer I would say “Let the collectors keep some of the spoils” and if I were taking the museum side, I might say “Why not give some to smaller museums?”.

According to the Met’s website, there collections include in alphabetical order: Arms and Armor, Ancient American Art, Asian Art, Costume, Drawings & Prints, Egyptian Art, European Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Greek and Roman Art, Islamic Art, Medieval Art, Modern & Contemporary Art, Musical Instruments, Oceanic Art, and Photographs.

I read recently that the museum also has a collection of over 30,000 Baseball cards given to the museum by Jefferson R. Burdick. It is the most comprehensive collection outside of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. My wife tells me that those baseball cards come under the print collection and can be an example of printing of the period. Good point, but do you need that many in order to make it. How many could you put in an exhibition anyway? My wife counters that by saying exhibitions are not the point and the in-depth collection is a study resource that can be drawn upon for exhibition.

When Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates, died his incredible fine arts collection was sold at Christie’s auction house for a whopping 1.5 billion dollars to be split among a number of charities. In some publication there was a comment that he should have left the collection to the Met. I found that ridiculous because, in my opinion, the Met did not need it. I would have suggested giving this fabulous collection to a small university museum making it a destination in the art world. Who knows, there may even be a bonus for the university in that some new visitor might become a benefactor.

I spoke with a European curator, who preferred to remain anonymous, about this matter. She pointed out a number of interesting issues. She mentioned that in Europe many museums are government funded and that governments will contribute financial support for the acquisition of works of art that they feel are “important” key pieces that will enhance the collection and will put the museum and the locality on the map. The Dutch government put up 150 million out of a total of 175 million Euros to purchase Rembrandt’s Standard Bearer from the Rothschild Family for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

I asked why does a museum need a great deal of filler after that goal has been reached. Her quick reply was, “it is not a question of need but of want”! I believe that goes for the private collector as well, but the latter would not be spending money that was raised publicly or privately nor having to physically expand the institution to accommodate the acquisitions, adding to the cost

Of course, as she said, the concept should not be about accumulation but rather the reason for collecting. The purpose should be in relation to the hierarchy of the cultural institution.

An encyclopedic goal leads to huge numbers. The Art Institute of Chicago notes on its website, that it “encompasses more than 5,000 years of human expression from cultures around the world and contains more than 300,000 works of art in 11 curatorial departments, ranging from early Japanese prints to the art of the Byzantine Empire to contemporary American art.” The Minneapolis Institute of Art website states something similar covering art from six continents, spanning about 5,000 years and they have “only” 90,000 works of art.

How many is too many? Now, if you don’t have enough to think about, the curator mentioned above said she believes “today the logic of museums is being questioned”.

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