An Art Museum for the People
THE plans for the new building of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts primarily represent the novel idea that an art museum should serve, not the student but the general public. Exhibition halls occupy the upper and finer of the two stories. Underneath each such hall is the respective working department, consisting of curators’offices, lecture halls, storerooms, and those rooms designated by the unusual term “ storage exhibition.” In other words all the collections are to be treated as a few are now, — Greek vases, Oriental painting, prints, for example, — where sheer bulk limits the exhibited objects to a selection. Only a fractional portion of such collections, naturally the most beautiful or important, is ever shown at one time; the rest remaining in storage at the disposal of students. In the new museum, every collection is to be regarded as too bulky for complete display, and only the choicer objects will be exhibited.
Now the installation of a parallel series of public and study collections is, as I have hinted, highly radical. It strikes uncompromisingly at the theory of comprehensive, chronological display which has prevailed for a full half-century. But the step has not been taken inconsiderately. For three years past the officers of the Boston Museum, notably the secretary, Mr. Benjamin Ives Gilman, have traversed the whole literature of museology, observing as well the merits and defects of existing buildings, and these studies have been presented to the trustees in a series of memorable reports. In these summaries may be found surprising anticipations of precisely the dual arrangement and anthological ideal that are expressed in the new building. It appears, indeed, that this ideal has never lacked weighty championship in our generation. Rather its advocates have lacked courage or opportunity to put it into effect. For Boston has been reserved the distinction of providing a great museum building that represents in every detail a consistent and forwardlooking idea, namely, that of discriminating between the needs of students and of amateurs, the two main classes that use museums. The innovation will seem shocking to those who have regarded museums merely as laboratories of archæological sciences. A humane has never yet superseded an exclusive academic doctrine without bitter controversy. But I am confident that the new ideal, from its very practicality and adaptability to our democratic conditions, will promptly make its way, and that the plans for the coming museum at Boston will become classic in the subject, just as Panizzi’s project for popularizing the library of the British Museum is standard for the kindred field of the public library. Such a hope is based on the fact that the Boston idea 1 is after all a return to first principles, or, better, is a humane compromise between the enlightened amateurism that created nearly all art museums, and the scientific formalism that, while swelling their accumulations, has narrowed their popular appeal. A glance at the history of art galleries will make the point clear.
In the eighteenth century, which with a certain warrant considered itself preeminently the age of good taste, the art museum as we understand it to-day was practically unknown. Instead there were many “cabinets ” of painting or sculpture. Such was the modest name that princes and wealthy amateurs chose for their artistic possessions. And the title suited the case very well. With rare exceptions, notably the Papal collections and those of the Saxon Kings, there were few cabinets that we should regard today as quantitatively great. But the cabinet was to yield to the museum, the royal collector to the state, the dilettante director — invariably an artist — to the diplomaed expert in art history. Museums were to be multiplied, and the riches of the old cabinets increased many fold. Access, which had formerly been restricted to the gentle class, was to be offered freely to all. In fine, the nineteenth century, as regards the art museum, was to end in a glory of expansion and democratization. Such at least was the appearance.
But the appearance was deceiving, the democratization only apparent. Expansion there had been on an impressive scale, but only in the interest of a small class of students and connoisseurs. For the people nothing had been done except to open the doors. Dazzling statistics of attendance and acquisition only meant that more stones were being provided for an ever-increasing throng that wanted bread. And to-day we are suffering from this one-sided growth of art collections. In the high name of scholarship, museums have reached or are rapidly approaching hypertrophy. Sheer piling up of exhibits threatens to obliterate all finer impressions, much as sheer volume of sound and complication of harmony have menaced the serene enjoyment of music.
The peril of this overgrowth has not passed unnoticed. For fifty years past, museum officials have occasionally pleaded for selection, for a qualitative ideal of exhibition. Meanwhile the discontent of art-lovers has become, though rarely voiced, none the less significant. One often finds artists and amateurs complaining that a visit to an art gallery is a penance. Occasionally such protestants, who represent the real public of museums, find a spokesman, as when the sensitive critic Gustave Geffroy names the museums of Paris “Dungeons of the Ideal.” The phrase might serve as a war-cry for the reformers. To-day most museums are so many Bastilles for the beautiful objects they contain. The problem is to convert these prisons into homes.
Let me illustrate concretely what this incarcerating of art means. The other day I went to the Bargello, after an absence of eleven years, with the especial purpose of renewing my acquaintance with the Donatellos. They were in an unfamiliar arrangement, and, to my chagrin, their appeal was so slow and imperfect that for a moment I was in something like panic. Was it possible that with the departure of youth had been exhausted the capacity for impressions so potent and so often proved ? A little reflection and a test with Antonio Pollaiuolo’s Warrior showed that neither the Donatellos nor I had changed. They had merely been subordinated to a logical but unpleasing scheme. The St. George, the David, all of them, had been taught to move in prison lockstep. A“Donatello Hall” had been created, in which all available casts of the master’s sculpture were collected, the grandiose Gattamelata properly dominating the display. The dozen original pieces had been placed on guard in two files at the end of the great hall, in such a disposition that the bronzes killed the marbles, while the plaster casts crushed both impartially. The obsession of the more numerous copies was so uncomfortable that quiet enjoyment of the originals was extremely difficult. If this were true of one thoroughly familiar with the master’s work, — in whom, then, the competition of the casts caused no real ambiguity, — how much more must it have been the case with the tourists painfully picking out the veritable sculpture of Donatello by the light of Mr. Baedeker’s asterisks.
For a mere gigantic example of the offensiveness of exhibiting originals with copies, take the South Kensington Museum. Is there any place in the world where so many fine objects produce so much weariness and afford so little pleasure ? A sensitive taste would I am sure prefer a visit to the Trocadero, where there are only copies, and the mind is not torn between two classes of exhibits of disparate value and appeal.
Apart from such rather unpardonable attenuation of impressions of art in the name of its history, a too rigid classification of originals also may produce a repellent effect. For example, all the Botticellis in the Uffizi have recently been brought together in a single well-lighted hall. Before, they were scattered through three galleries and the long corridor, in haphazard fashion. The change is unquestionably advantageous for the student, saving some steps and some remembering; to the mere art-lover it is depressing. The Birth of Venus has been removed from a shrine to a gangway. The smaller pictures, including the marvelous Calumny and the Judith, are effaced by the larger pieces —can be seen at all only by a painful effort of abstraction. Even such a realistic masterpiece as the Adoration of the Kangs is strangely cheapened by the nearness of the more idealistic roundels of the Virgin with Angels. The early pictures, which are for the most part only of the school, lower the level of the display generally. In short half a dozen of the keenest impressions of a visit to the Uffizi have been blunted in order that a handful of Neo-Morellians may save a few francs’ worth of shoe-leather.
Such are some of the results of dealing too systematically with that highly spontaneous product which we call art. Whole galleries, like the Brera, become unattractive in order that the visitor may read on the walls those personal and chronological relations which are more profitably sought in books. Objects of archfeological but of no aesthetic consequence are shown side by side with masterpieces; in the name of the catchword of the last century, — development, — exhibits are multiplied beyond the capacity of any taste to enjoy and assimilate. The plight of the art-lover grows yearly worse, while that of the student, as we shall see, is not improved in proportion to the energy and money expended.
This abuse, like many expressions of unliberalized intelligence, has most respectable origins. For a half-century past the relatively new sciences of the history and connoisseurs hip of art have carried everything before them. To the imagination their appeal has been irresistible, and justly, for they opened up to scientific method a new and lovely territory. And the art critic has naturally imposed his authority readily upon the old, amateurish, easygoing director. Those placid survivors of the eighteenthcentury dilettantism were first made uncomfortable. The batteries of the new learning played on them night and day. Consecrated attributions were ruthlessly changed, radical ascriptions were bandied about in the most bewildering fashion. New and unheard-of artists were discovered on the walls, or, worse yet, in the storeroom. The purchase of what had seemed mere nobodies was insistently urged because these daubers had been promoted to be heads of schools or the masters of famous pupils. Under such a fusillade the alternative for an old-style director was to retire or surrender. Gradually position after position was captured by the connoisseurs, until at the end of the last century the museums of the world, with trilling exceptions, were all in the hand of new-style experts, and all suffering notably from the dropsical condition which we have already diagnosed in brief.
Now against expertism as such no artlover has any just grievance. In many regards it is his best friend. It is only when archaeology disfigures collections that profess to exist for the people, that its credentials should be shrewdly challenged. There is a place for the frankly archaeological museum, just as there is for the purely academic library. Indeed there is something admirable about such a true type of the scholar’s gallery as one finds in the British Museum. One can but admire the ruthless logic that, for greater ease of investigation, has installed the pediment sculptures of the Parthenon in a narrow hall, at about the convenient height of a luncheon bar. But when it comes to introducing such mal-arrangements into museums that exist primarily for the pleasure of the people, archaeology must expect the odium due to any other usurper.
I must repeat that practically none of the museums that have recently been captured by connoisseurship were founded for the illustration of the history of art. They represented the free taste of amateurs in consultation with artists. We find Isabella d’Este pestering Perugino, Leonardo, and Giambellini for pictures, and employing Donatello as a buyer; Velasquez scouring Italy for Philip IV; Lebrun as artistic adviser to Louis XIV. These examples bespeak the enthusiasms that underlie nearly all modern museums. Moreover, most national collections, even those not of royal or private antecedents, were founded in a similar amateur spirit. One may judge the value of that tradition, by one of the few older galleries still unchanged, the Pitti, — perhaps the most harmonious ensemble in Europe. Morally, such beginnings should impose respect upon the museum authorities of to-day, however rigidly scientific their bent.
The strength of the Boston idea is that it is not merely a reaction but a genuine attempt at adjustment of the opposing claims of science and æsthetics. Unlike the academic movement which it desires to humanize, it is not intolerant. It recognizes fully the value and dignity of archaeology. It seeks not to oust the scholastic director but to liberalize him. It merely reclaims for the people the works of art which are really available for broader cultural purposes, these finer objects remaining withal as much as ever at the disposal of students. Those exhibits which are interesting only to specialists it sets apart for their use in convenient workrooms or storage galleries. In fine, Peter is to be paid without robbing Paul. The obvious reasonableness of such a division must win all sensible people in the long run. That there is a pronounced and formidable opposition from the archaeological camp is due partly to sentimental reasons, partly to a misunderstanding of the practical scope of the reform.
Sentimentally it is feared that the archæological collections are to be degraded, relegated to smaller and inferior quarters. In fact merely a convenient concentration of the materials of research will be effected. Ask any specialist whether he would prefer to work with, say, Greek vases or terracottas, in the present public galleries, or to have the liberty of a private workroom near which all his material is compactly stored and shown. There can be no doubt of the answer. From those favored persons who have the privilege of the book-stack in our public libraries, no complaint is heard because it is less commodious or monumental than the general reading-room. Under such conditions the lot of the investigator is obviously improved, since the spreading out of art collections makes study only less difficult than recreation. Sheer legweariness produces impartially in scholar and amateur a corresponding depression of mind and mood.
A more serious apprehension is that the results of a century of scholarship are frivolously to be repudiated. Just as the history of art begins to be clear, at the moment when our museums have laboriously achieved something like a scientific order, all this is to give way to an irresponsible dilettantism. Proved educational values are to yield to vaguely surmised æsthetic values. Here again speaks sheer misunderstanding of the thing intended. The approved academic classifications will apply absolutely to the study department of a new-style museum, — that is to the great majority of its exhibits, — while in the public halls the basis of installation will still be historical in the main. Archæology is not to be abolished, but put to new and finer uses.
All this will appear plainly when we imagine the selective process applied in concrete cases. Let us take, for example, the Cesnola collection of Cypriote antiquities at New York. Here is a bulky exhibition of pottery and sculpture of very slight artistic value, being the product of routine craftsmen who worked apart from the finer examples of antique art. It contains duplicates in confusing and tedious numbers. It occupies nearly an acre of immensely costly floor space. Its archæological interest is, however, considerable, for Cyprus was a rendezvous for Grecian, Asiatic, and Egyptian traders, and its art reflected fitfully all these influences. What disposition would be made of such a collection in a newstyle museum ?
First, the duplicates would be weeded out and exchanged with other museums. Then, the bulk of the material would be transferred to a study department. Finally, the small remnant — I may guess a twentieth part — would be exhibited in chronological order as an adjunct to the major classical collections. The gain from such a redistribution would be a saving of space amounting probably to two-thirds of the present allotment, and the consequent recovery of space much needed for collections of the first importance; the representation of Cypriote art by its best examples, freed from the confusing presence of the rest, and the elimination from the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of an unwieldy and unattractive mass of inferior and provincial objects. On the lower grounds of economy such a reform is evidently preferable to the present condition; on the higher ground of public service, such a rearrangement would at once show Cypriote antiquity at its best and would place it in perspective with classical antiquity generally. From this point of view the single small gallery containing the remnant deemed worthy of public exhibition would be not only more enjoyable but more truly educational than the dreary and almost deserted precincts now devoted to the entire Cesnola collection.
That no anti-scientific iconoclasm is intended in an anthological museum may be even more clearly seen in the galleries in which the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has partially illustrated the selective principle. These trial exhibits of Greek vases and of Japanese painting and sculpture are none the less historical because the basis of selection has been purely æsthetic. In other words, once the finer objects have been chosen, the arrangement has been made in the light of approved archæological results. In that delightful gray room in which the hieratic school of Japan is represented by a dozen paintings and as many sculptures, only a hopeless pedant could object to the arrangement on scientific grounds. In fact it differs from an ordinary museum exhibit only in these regards — all the objects are of very fine quality, the room is decorated and lighted with respect to the objects it contains, only a few things are shown, and these have been installed both in view of a general artistic effect and so that each shall enhance its neighbors. Finally — a detail but an important one — these exquisite works requiring time and tranquillity for their proper appreciation have been put in a hall that cannot be used as a thoroughfare, having only one door. I should repeat that there is nothing antiscientifie or antichronological in this pioneer gallery. It represents merely an attempt to give its contents their primary value as works of art, archaeology becoming a useful if a subordinate auxiliary of the endeavor. Now I can conceive objections to the hall of Greek vases and to that of Japanese painting and sculpture, for we are in the realm of tact and taste, where opinions will naturally differ; but I think no candid visitor will deny their attractiveness. No galleries in the Museum afford a higher or more tranquil enjoyment. Moreover, if exhibits of this sort, containing to the untrained eye a great number of virtual duplicates, are to be seen at all, it can be only on condition of selection. A little observation of halls containing small or seemingly uniform objects — coins, medals, little bronzes, terra-cottas — will show that the average visitor simply overlooks such exhibits. They remain as much unseen, except for an occasional student, as if they were in our projected study departments. In fine, so apparently precious an arrangement as that of Greek painted vases or Japanese priestly art at Boston in reality bespeaks a shrewd and practical consideration of palpable defects in the ruling system of museum exhibition.
It is strange, then, that the advocates of this eminently practical reform have been treated as visionaries if not fanatics. And in view of these specimen galleries there is some lack of candor in branding the anthological idea as merely amateurish or dangerously subjective. It seems to be feared that a new-style museum would consist of a blue Ming vase, a Persian tile, a few Whistler lithographs, and a bit of tapestry in the public galleries, and all the rest tucked away in the study department. We are assured that the public galleries would resemble nothing so much as the private office of a high-class antiquarian. For purposes of caricature this may serve well enough. To those who dread a reform, it is agreeable to represent it as a revolution. It has even been asserted that a dual museum was inherently so impossible that no architect could draw the plans for the building required by the theorists; but the plans for the new Boston Museum are published and may be studied by all doubters. One may well trust to time to allay the distrust of the conservatives. The proof of this pudding too will be in the eating. The academic contingent will cease to grudge the largesse proposed for the public, when it is perceived that science is not to be taxed therefor.
Indeed the critical pass for the reformers may well prove to be the conquest of the public. It is a bold surmise that our people are on an average capable of receiving fine and selected impressions of art. There is much probability that the sheer bigness of our museums, their random appeal to untrained curiosities, constitutes a kind of attractiveness. To the casual visitor, who is largely incapable of grasping a historic scheme of exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum may well present in more dignified form the diverse titillations of the mind that one secures in more drastic form from the reading of the Sunday newspaper. With this habit of dealing joyously with the big, vague, and indigestible, the advocates of the anthological idea must reckon seriously. One of the most distinguished of these once said to me, “What if the people should refuse to visit the halls we arrange for them, and should crowd the study departments ? ” So whimsical a failure might indeed be possible if the change were made too abruptly and with too little regard for the habits of the public. I doubt seriously, for example, if a whole museum arranged as austerely as the specimen Japanese room at Boston, could hope to hold its attendance. But in this matter a certain amount of common sense is presupposed on the part of the administrators of the reform. Evidently the selection of the “best” objects must be made not absolutely, but in the light of the actual state of the collections. Concretely, if the Boston Museum should decide to show only those paintings that may be said to rank with the world’s best, it might possibly show a half-dozen. But obviously no such arbitrary selection would be made by any sensible curator. By the “best ” he would merely understand the most available, considering the state of culture of his public, the richness of the collections, and the especial claims of the local and national schools of art. In short, these things are a matter of tact and delicate adjustment between the museum and the people it serves. The important thing is merely that the academic and pedagogic function should not be confused with that of genuine popularization. As regards the public, the standard, however prudently relative, must invariably be æsthetic and humane; as regards the special student it may properly be quantitative and merely historical.
And here I must deal reluctantly with that profounder skepticism which denies the validity of all æsthetic judgments — reluctantly because it involves a peculiarly pathetic dilettantism that frequently afflicts the most learned scholars. Who shall venture to choose the best, they ask ? Who shall rashly impose his individual preference upon another? When we say that an object is of copper or iron; is painting or sculpture; is of such a period, school, and master, we deal with indisputable facts, beyond which it is perilous to go. To ascertain and illustrate such facts is the whole duty of a museum. When, however, we say that a thing is beautiful, or, more hardily, that it is of the first, second, or third order of beauty, we are no longer in the charted realm of fact but in the shadow world of opinion. Here is no certitude. Every man’s taste is valid for himself: none may presume to instruct another. The taste of a navvy who strolls into a picture gallery is quite as authoritative, or, better, quite as nugatory, as that of its trained curator. Accordingly the task of a museum is to grow systematically in the sunshine of science, avoiding the moonshine of æsthetic uncertainties. Evidently, if this objection is based on any truth, it is decisive. But it is based not on truth at all, but upon a strangely morbid timidity in the academic temperament. It is a typical idol of the scientific cave. Unquestionably such impotence of taste frequently exists in specialists. Charles Darwin has recorded the gradual withering of his æsthetic life. It has remained for our times to exalt this incapacity, this malady of the soul, into a high scientific virtue.
With this sweeping denial of human capacity I need not deal at length. Happily the normal mind rejects it, and life itself constantly gives it the lie. In such ordinary matters as the selection of our tea and wine we depend upon æsthetic affirmations, and in the higher issues of taste a considerable, a wholly practical, consensus exists in every field. No publisher is seriously nonplussed when he promises the hundred best authors. Archæology itself boldly asserts the superiority of Greek originals to GrecoRoman copies, an axiom which would be rank nonsense — being based solely on perception of artistic quality — if the dicta of taste are worthless. Opinions naturally differ widely as to the world’s best music, but no opera or philharmonic has any practical difficulty in deciding what it will admit to its repertory. In short, men and organizations do habitually what our agnostics assert that no museum can hope to do A working consensus of competent æsthetic opinion is, in fact, so every-day a phenomenon, that its denial savors simply of an abnormal experience of life. So the deaf deny that one song is more beautiful than another, or the reality of song itself. But, happily, no absurdity is quite without its gleam of reasonableness. It is true that the decisions of taste are not absolute but relative. This, we shall see, is an advantage, permitting each age to emphasize what is most valuable to it. And it is true also that the best individual taste has its vagaries. But this means only that when one choses for a number he should do so liberally and in consultation with those whose opinion is of weight. Common sense is required of all administrators, and fortunately there is no reason to believe that the skeptical scientists of to-day hold a monopoly of that indispensable quality. In short a new-style curator will occasionally blunder in matters of taste, just as an old-style curator will in matters of fact, purchasing forgeries or the like, and yet both may be excellent officials. All that we may exact in either case is practical efficiency in the long run. To close a tedious argument, the gist of the matter lies here. When an archæologist denies the practical authority of verdicts in taste, we must believe that the statement is true of himself alone. He is incapable of rendering such judgments, and has generalized rashly from his individual limitation. In a scholar’s museum, where taste is of minor import, he may be useful, nay indispensable; in a popular museum he has no place.
The objections to the anthological idea have been considered at length, less because they are weighty than because they are held by persons of weight. Before we pass again to the more inviting theme of art galleries for the people, one more difficulty—the dead-weight of the past — should be frankly admitted. Many museums are hopelessly committed by their traditions, others are housed in buildings that permit the application of the selective process either not at all or most imperfectly. In such cases the reform must bide its time. It is chiefly the rare good fortune of having a new building in hand that gives the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the opportunity not merely to conceive but also to realize the popular museum of the fuiure. Into the pleasure halls of such a museum let us try to enter in imagination.
The first impression is one of roominess. The limitation of the exhibits to the finest has permitted the staff to do in reality what museum officials have always endeavored to do, but under terrible disadvantages — namely, to display their treasures in perfect light, with a proper allowance of space, and in an attractive order. There is no sense of a disorderly or anarchical arrangement. The old classification by material, period, and school still holds. Indeed the new gallery seems merely a sublimation of the familiar, more confusing sort. It yields fewer, finer, and more precise impressions. Only as we study the arrangement more narrowly do we perceive an innovation. For sound reasons of taste, there is some mixture of exhibits of various materials. The curators have acted on the principle that art is a product not of the classifiers but of an individual human life. The bad old days when Antonio Pollaiuolo, because he was at once a painter, sculptor, and goldsmith, must be sought in four Florentine museums, are passing rapidly. These new-style curators deem it folly to show Kôrin as painter, without at least representing him near-by as designer of lacquers and bijoux. They perceive that the low relief of the Italian Renaissance is only in a narrow sense sculpture at all, being really a form of graphic design in stone or metal. Hence, as occasion serves, they have not hesitated to show bas-reliefs, or even sculpture in the round, beside the paintings that it enhances or illustrates.
Repeated visits to these new galleries will reveal a new attraction — a variety within the prevailing uniformity. While the major exhibits remain unchanged, the incidental exhibits in each hall are periodically renewed. In this manner the finest portion of the more unmanageable collections is brought persuasively before the visitor in carefully selected groups. We enjoy seriatim a whole class of lovely small objects at which we only gaped dismally when they were aligned by the hundreds in forbidding aisles of showcases.
The museum itself is arranged to suit our convenience and to restrain our unrest. Each main department — painting, sculpture, textiles, etc. — constitutes a round in itself. One is not compelled to take a distracting course through alien exhibits to reach the galleries he seeks. An even greater comfort — one is not pushed or spilled from one hall into other and wholly unrelated collections. Seats are the rule and not the exception. At chosen points in each round there are resting-places, the windows of which give on gardens or courts. Everything makes for ease and reflection, and swift tours à la Cook are heavily penalized because one must always return to the distributing centre before attacking a new department. To commit the imbecility of visiting the whole museum in a half-day is physically impossible. The galleries, then, are absolutely free from anything like a procession of people who are merely finding their way about. One must choose what he will see, on entering. The visitors have no longer that vague harassed look which we so often noted in the old museums, for the chief cause of museum-fag has been removed. The most restless person must perforce limit himself to comparatively few, fine, and congruous impressions. The taste and intelligence of the staff have interposed between the vastness of the collections and the untrained zeal of the public.
As we frequently enter the great building or, rather, group of buildings, we gradually learn to appreciate how modestly and well it serves its purpose. It is treated simply as so many well-lighted boxes for the treasures it contains. It bespeaks not the pomp and wealth of our day, but reverence for the art of old times. It is monumental only in so far as its great bulk and carefully studied proportions make it so. It is nowhere ornate, reflecting a high and even a beautiful utilitarianism, like a fine hospital. As our admiration for it grows, we recall with regret and even shame the many museums of our time that represent merely the vanity or the negligent opulence of their founders—impudent and irrelevant expressions of the most ephemeral art of our day, neither housing nor even lighting properly the works of art to which they have been nominally devoted; at best pale and remote echoes of the real palaces that for real reasons had become museums. But we shall bear this humiliating retrospect with the better grace, because we realize that in the past this simple and serviceable building must put an end to those old, dull, spendthrift days.
By this time our imaginary visitor will have the curiosity perhaps to visit the study department downstairs. A small group of Tanagra figurines has whetted his appetite for more. With some trepidation he approaches the doorkeeper, and learns to his relief that, to consult the curator of classical art, one need only sign a register. Going downstairs, our amateur passes several cabinets in which students are working, a lecture hall, and finally enters an office, which, since the curator is of course an expert archæologist, contains a small working library Before inquiring about the figurines our amateur’s curiosity leads him to ask for general information about the arrangement of this strange museum, and the following colloquy ensues: —
AMATOR. Good day, Dr. Museologus.
MUSEOLOGUS. Please be seated, Mr. Amator.
AM. I am not a student and I fear to take your time, but I have traveled much and have visited many museums for my pleasure. Yours has given me many delightful hours and has never fatigued me. There seems to be some mysterious attractiveness in your system of exhibition, and I venture to ask you where the secret lies.
Mus. The matter is really very simple. We show in the public galleries only those objects that are beautiful enough in our judgment to appeal immediately to our average visitor. Beyond this we merely limit our exhibitions of small objects to the number that can readily be enjoyed. We change these small displays periodically, for the sake of variety, and to make it an object to visit our galleries frequently.
AM. Yes, I understand that. In fact I am here because I coidd n’t wait for the next batch of Tanagra figurines. But —
Mus. (complacently). Yes, I thought that group must bring us recruits. You are the fourth. You see these little exhibitions are often an excellent bait. They draw people down here to the study collection. My assistant will gladly show you any or all of the terra-cottas.
AM. But I was going to say that your principle of selection does not wholly explain the charm of this museum. Your exhibits might be the finest and yet the effect confusing and wearisome. Here I find a remarkably simple and attractive scheme of exhibition. You hardly attain such effects without having some consistent principle.
Mus. You have an analytical mind, sir. Most of our visitors find the arrangement so inevitable that they give us scant credit for intelligence, and some even object to the simplicity you justly admire. Yes, we have a principle, — a very simple one: we try to discover and reveal the museum value of the objects we exhibit.
AM. Pardon me, but the word is new to me, and I understand it only vaguely.
Mus. Then, to illustrate: a Greek statue of a mediæval altarpiece has a primary value in its respective temple or chapel. The moment the statue leaves its temple or the picture its chapel that primary value is lost, except as we may try to reproduce it in the imagination. The statue may gain a notable secondary value in the villa of a Roman patrician or the garden of an Italian despot, but its placing and lighting, indeed its æsthetic appreciation, must now be determined not by its original but by its new use. Suppose now the statue and picture come into a museum. Our task is merely to give them maximum effectiveness as museum exhibits. We could of course imitate their original setting, but that would be a costly stupidity — a mere theatric illusion of the poorer sort.
AM. But suppose you could get a portion of a real temple or even the original chapel of which you speak, would not that be the ideal setting ? I recall the Bavarian Museum at Munich where many ancient interior fittings have been transported to serve as galleries. One sees the utensils of old time in the very places in which they were used. Suppose that this could generally be done, might it not be desirable ?
Mus. Almost never. You did n’t notice, I presume, that many of the interiors of the Bavarian Museum were mediocre modern facsimiles.
AM. NO, is that so ?
Mus. Naturally you did n’t see it, because the difference between a mediocre but ancient interior and a bad modern copy of a fine ancient one is after all slight. Here is the real difficulty with your view: there are almost no interiors or fragments of buildings that are at once beautiful enough for museum exhibits and also available for that purpose. If we had such objects we should rarely show them upstairs. We should be very glad to get good examples for our study department.
AM. For museum galleries, then, you favor neither imitations of ancient interior decorations nor even the originals.
Mus. Precisely. For even if these transplanted decorations were intrinsically fine enough, we could use them as exhibition galleries only by offending both history and our modern sense of fitness. An old interior filled with miscellaneous objects of the period is a mere pretense archaeologically. No such ensemble ever existed in the past. Again, if we overcrowd it, it loses its effect as a composition; while if we use fine objects merely as subordinate decoration for such an interior, they lose that special museum value which it is our business to bring out. The point is to show to the public nothing that is false, misleading, confusing to the mind, or of slight æsthetic value.
AM. I think we agree, and that brings me back to what you had begun to say about museum values. They are, I suppose, considerably less than what you call primary æsthetic values.
Mus. Not necessarily so, or, rather, the two values are so different that it is futile to compare them. There are often obvious gains. An altarpiece may at least be seen in a gallery better than in the gloom of its chapel. Whole passages of delicate workmanship originally obscured become part of its museum value. Besides, it may be seen apart from ugly or incongruous surroundings. We at least may detach a fine work from the pathetic rubbish which the Church has massed about it. We can show it too among other beautiful works that serve as its foil or explanation.
AM. Pardon me, but I have sometimes thought that a noble work of art severed from the definite conditions under which it was made actually gains a kind of abstract beauty. By breaking the chain of historic association we have also released it from many accidental relations. Possibly we thus get nearer the ultimate endeavor towards beauty in the artist’s mind — nearer the Platonic form of the picture, which certainly underlies and transcends the fact that it is a Holy Family painted for such a patron, in such a year, for such an altar. I talk vaguely, I fear, but it seems to me that in the galleries above you have managed often to get at this thing.
Mus. You have divined the spirit of the place. That is what we try to do, and if we have in any measure succeeded, you need not too greatly regret the temple that crumbles in Greece, the chapel that has given place to the public square in Italy.
AM. In short we have the beauty that remains, and that must be sufficient.
Mus. To see that you really get that is the highest duty of an art museum. But I want you to realize that our function is after all a very simple and practical one. We merely have faith in the beautiful objects we keep. We believe they convey their exhilarating influence whenever they are really seen. Our part is merely to make it easy to see them. Thus we study with the greatest care, scientifically you might say, the lighting of our galleries, and the tinting of walls and floors. We treat every class of ex hibits and every hall as a special case avoiding the old uniformity, and above all else, eschewing the old pseudo-palatial ornateness. We show only a few things in any gallery, making them balance and embellish each other. Things that belong together as the work of one artist in several mediums, we put together in spite of our general classification. In short, we treat with human respect and simplicity the relatively few things we exhibit. We do as little as possible, trusting the light and the work of art to make their joint appeal effective.
AM. Very good, but I presume your successor, and even more your remote successors, will make great changes in the public galleries. Taste shifts, you know.
MUS. I certainly hope so. My successor must serve not my public but his own. If he finds worthy of the galleries many objects which I have kept in the study department, why, so much the better. His taste ought to be better than mine, his public more enlightened than that of to-day. Indeed, the strength of this kind of a museum is that it responds sensitively to the best contemporary taste, giving each generation what it is most prepared to appreciate. Because we realize the relativity of our own judgments we alienate nothing but duplicates. We are unwilling to tie the hands of those to come. And precisely in the flexibility you note lies our advantage over the merely arclireological museums. Their classification is abstract, impersonal, and rigid, with the result that at any one time half their galleries are dead as regards the people. We have no dead galleries.
AM. Only one more matter. As this museum grows, will it not from mere expansion come once more to resemble the old-style museums ?
MUS. A shrewd and a fair question. No. As fast as we get finer objects we make place for them by removing relatively inferior objects from the galleries to the study department. For each public department we have fixed a limit of growth. Whenever that limit is reached, that gallery will remain stationary as regards size, improving, however, in quality as poorer are replaced by finer exhibits.
AM. Then, looking forward to the remote future, you will have public galleries always richer in beautiful works of art —
MUS. And so ever more productive of pleasure and culture for the people.
AM. And study collections ever gaining in size and representative quality.
MUS. Hence progressively more interesting and valuable to students and investigators.
AM. My dear sir, it seems ideal. You will permit me to congratulate you upon engaging in so engrossing a profession.
MUS. Rather let me congratulate the museum on receiving so appreciative a visitor. You must go ? You are always welcome here. May I show you the terra-cottas ?
AM. Not to-day. I must go upstairs again and take my museum values more intelligently, in view of what you have kindly said.
MUS. Not too seriously, I beg of you; enjoy yourself merely, and when you want to work, come down here. Goodday.
AM. Many thanks. Good-day.
Some such talk I seem to have heard in a dream, and I have learned to believe that the dreams of to-day are often the stuff out of which the realities of tomorrow are shaped.
- The author has no authority to speak for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He merely indicates the line of policy that it is likely to follow should it carry out consistently the reform it has adopted in principle. The discussion will be of the most general applications, concerning all museums of art not devoted expressly and solely to special scholarship.↩