What’s A Museum For?

Sir John Soane's Museum
Sir John Soanes Museum in London. Treasure trove!!! Go! Image by Mal Booth via Flickr

Do museums still matter?

In an era where we can now (which is fantastically democratic) access almost any image at our fingertips on-line, is it worth the time, energy and money to actually enter a building and spend a few hours looking at the real things?

I think so. Some of my happiest and most powerful memories are of museums in which I’ve whiled away hours. I inevitably come away awed and humbled, refreshed and inspired by the collective creativity of the millennia, all those ideas and fantasies and skill and global commerce — 16th. century porcelain! 12th. century jewelry! shields and armor and paintings and chairs used by those now long-gone….who were they?

Mine include:

— the amazing pietra dura (inlaid stonework) tables at The Prado in Madrid

— a room swathed in olive green raw silk, filled with exquisite Art Nouveau jewelry at the Gulbenkian in Lisbon

— Odilon Redon’s paintings at the Met

— the Venetian palazzo that is Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (and the subject of the largest unsolved art theft in history, covered in this terrific book)

— the impossibly fast Blackbird SR-71 jet, (Mach 3.5!) at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson

— a gorgeous room-sized painting of Joan of Arc at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

— the funky leather chair that was Sigmund Freud’s at the museum that is his former home in London

— the small, perfect Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto (my hometown)

Here’s an interesting recent interview in The Wall Street Journal with Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum:

In any case, Mr. Lehman has moved on to his next idea, which involves something many museums should be doing: focusing more on their permanent collections. “I have spent a lot of time,” he says, “looking at how this collection should be seen in the 21st century by 21st-century visitors, all of whom have a lot more access to information than even the most respected curators did 75 years ago.”

In part, this is pragmatic: With money tight, museums have had to cut back on expensive loan exhibitions. But in part, this is visionary. For decades, museums trained visitors to come for their changing exhibitions, all but ignoring the treasures they actually own. Frequently, permanent-collection galleries are virtually empty, left to the dwindling pool of committed art-lovers. “We will make the permanent collection the primary attraction of the Brooklyn Museum,” Mr. Lehman promises. “I don’t want to see our visitation going up and down because of exhibitions.”

And a profile of another one of my favorites, Sir John Soane’s Museum, in London by FT columnist Harry Eyres:

The Sir John Soane’s Museum is a museum like no other. I remember going to see it when I was still at school and immediately liking it, though I would not have been able to say quite why, or to pin my enthusiasm on any particular object. According to the dapper and smart new director, Tim Knox, the museum has a strong appeal for the elusive 16-30-year-old bracket, the kind of young people you imagine would rather be on Facebook than going to some fusty old house in a lawyers’ district of London.

Now I’m a bit older I still like the Soane, and can come up with a theory about why it might appeal to the young. It is a place liberatingly free of cant: the educational cant that tells you that you should be learning about the history of western painting; the scientific cant that will fill you with facts and explanations; above all, the cant of good taste…Soane committed a terrible sin by being eclectic; by filling his house with an unclassifiable collection of occasional masterpieces – paintings by Hogarth, Watteau and Canaletto – and odd plaster casts, a huge model of Pompeii, the tomb of his dog and, in the basement, the magnificent alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I.

What are some of your favorite museums?

Can you tip us off to an object or work of art in one that you especially love?

Reunited Masterpieces: My Story In Today's NYT; Gardner Museum Renews Search For Stolen Treasures

Calming the storm
Calming the Storm --- stolen and never recovered. Image via Wikipedia

Here’s my piece in today’s New York Times, in a special arts section about museums:

An unusual and intimate show, “Reunited Masterpieces,” with 10 carefully chosen pairs of artworks, opened here Feb. 14 and continues until May 30.

The painter of Adam and Eve is Hendrick Goltzius, a Dutchman who lived from 1558 to 1617. The Wadsworth Atheneum acquired Adam in 2004; Eve belongs to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg, France.

Eric Zafran, the curator, who conceived, arranged and designed the show, said the loan was made easier because both institutions were members of Frame, the French Regional and American Museum Exchange, a consortium of museums in cities outside government and economic capitals that work together to share their collections.

Some of the paintings in the pairs appear extremely different, partly because of different conservation methods, Dr. Zafran explained. The portrait of Adam remains fresh, pink and luminous, while Eve appears older and more weathered, with a light coating of grime and crackling on the surface.

A similar stunning contrast marks two large pieces, 61 inches by 68 3/4 inches and 61 1/4 inches by 65 1/2 inches, painted in 1490 by Piero di Cosimo of Italy. The Wadsworth’s version, “The Finding of Vulcan,” is classically Renaissance, a breath of fresh, clean air, its six clothed women (Vulcan, in the center, is nude) wearing typically flowing garments.

Its mate, “Vulcan and the Beginnings of Civilization,” borrowed from the National Gallery of Canada, contains 11 figures, including a giraffe in Florence during the period. The colors are muddier, the brushwork much less fine, the birds and beasts oddly out of scale.

The show includes a spectacular pair of portraits by the Dutch Master Frans Hals, from 1644, of Joseph Coymans and his wife, Dorothea Berck; he was 52, she, 51. He belongs to the Wadsworth, while she traveled north from the Baltimore Museum of Art to join him. The two have been reunited only once before, in a show in Hals’s hometown, Haarlem, in 1962.

Twenty years after the largest, and still unsolved theft of art from a museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston is redoubling efforts to reclaim its works, reports The New York Post:

It remains the most tantalizing art-heist mystery in the world.

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves walked into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum disguised as police officers and bound and gagged two guards. For the next 81 minutes, they sauntered around the ornate galleries, removing masterworks, including those by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet.

By the time they disappeared, they would be credited with the largest art theft in history, making off with upward of a half-billion dollars in loot far too hot to sell.

Now, 20 years later, investigators are making a renewed push to recover the paintings. The FBI has resubmitted DNA samples for updated testing, the museum is publicizing its $5 million, no-questions-asked reward, and the US Attorney’s Office is offering immunity.

The thieves had knowledge of the museum’s security system, but might have underestimated the scope of their crime.

“I picture the thieves waking up the next morning and looking in the papers and saying, ‘We just pulled off the largest art theft in history,’ ” said Anthony Amore, the museum’s security director.

My friend Ulrich Boser, a D.C.-based writer and former staffer at U.S. News and World Report, has written the only book about this daring theft — “The Gardner Heist”, a best-seller published last year and  newly released in paperback.

I was privileged to be one of his “first readers”, seeing the book in manuscript form. I couldn’t put it down. His reporting is detailed, international and deeply personal — he admits he became so obsessed himself with it all he stopped showering and could think of little else, annoying the hell out of his wife, and his two little kids. He’s clearly passionate about his subject; if you love art, and art history — let alone a riveting international crime tale — you’ll enjoy it.