Museums – modern day mausoleums to centuries of fine art?
Recently museums and highly valued art works have been much in the news. In the run-up to COP27, young climate activists took it upon themselves to throw paint and soup over priceless artworks displayed in some of the world’s largest museums – including Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis in the Hague. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA) recently re-opened in Antwerp, after an 11 year closure for renovation. We also heard about the largest art sale in history as dozens of art works belonging to the late Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, were auctioned for a record $1.5 billion at Christie’s in New York. How did art work acquire such value and what role do museums play in facilitating this modern form of secular worship?
The KMSKA was originally opened in 1890 and was modelled on an ancient Greek temple. The large neoclassical building houses 2.4 km of galleries and currently has more than 600 works on display. In ancient times, art work was largely there for the glorification of kings and rulers. It also adorned religious temples and places of worship. There was something organic in this sense, about the context in which great works of art were viewed and admired. But with the rise of science and the secular nation state, along with the spoils of colonialism, the idea of the museum was born.
The original meaning of ‘museum’ was a study or library. The British Museum, for instance, was established with an antiquarian collection, bequeathed by Sir John Soane in 1753, and was the first national museum open to the public. While the Louvre in France was opened in 1793 after the Revolution, displaying paintings confiscated from the Church and royal property. The 18th century saw the nationalisation of many royal art collections throughout Europe. While in America, several large art museums were financed by donations from its many millionaires. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was set up by the New York State Legislature in 1870 as a city museum and library of art.
Each year, millions visit these hallowed spaces, a pilgrimage to culture and national pride. Yet, research shows that the average museum-goer spends under half a minute looking at a great work of art. If we’re honest, there is something overwhelming about gallery upon gallery of art works that all require our rapt attention, all within the space of a few hours. Are the great works of art, really designed to be appreciated in this manner? In a recent interview for the Guardian, Director of KMSKA, Carmen Willems admits that for many, visiting the museum is “a challenge”.
A focus on interaction and what Willems describes as slowing “the tempo of looking at art” are now increasingly common in large museums around the world. There is also the question of value. Works by the world’s most renowned artists now fetch eye-watering prices on the private art market. Cezanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire recently sold for a record $137.8m while Van Gogh’s Verger avec cyprés fetched a staggering $117.3m – the highest ever for a Van Gogh painting. High value art is now seen as a hedge against inflation and more secure than the stock market or cryptocurrencies. Many of these works however, have been bought for private display, or perhaps simply safe-keeping in a state-of-the-art security facility.
What of the joy and wonder of a work of art designed to reflect, celebrate or question some aspect of human endeavour? Can one really appreciate the Elgin Marbles, carefully displayed in a sterilized corner of the British Museum, when they were clearly designed to celebrate the power and glory of an ancient King on the dusty heights of the Acropolis? Should we be re-thinking the way we view art works altogether – not as priceless treasures, kept under lock and key, but rather as creations that gain significance from the contexts in which they were first imagined? Works of wonder that should be copied and shared, not stored and sanitized for the box-tickers.
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