— City Lit’s Art History coordinator Sarah Jaffray shares some, perhaps, lesser-known facts about how museum collections shape our access to art and its history. She emphasises the importance of museums in the study of Art History and how to study Museums and Collecting at City Lit.
An artwork is a thing
When preparing an Art History course, an Art Historian (like me) can choose whatever [art]works they like to build the narrative of the course - it doesn’t matter where they are in the world.
Teaching about the innovations of the Italian painter Caravaggio, I can use paintings from the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid. Although this is standard practice for an Art History course, it leaves out a major part of the artwork’s history: its life as an object.
An artwork is a set of ideas rendered through artistic techniques, but it is also a thing, a physical object that takes up space and exists like any other.
All of these paintings are by Caravaggio and all were painted in Rome in around 1600, but they are all now in different museum collections and, because of this, they have developed new histories beyond their original time and place. Being a part of a specific museum collection, display or exhibition adds to the history of an artwork.
The prominence of a work of art grows as a result of the museum it belongs to. If a work is in the Louvre (the most visited museum in the world), it is more seen and usually more written about.
Overall, it is more exposed than works in lesser-known collections. Some art historians, myself included, believe that the Mona Lisa is Leonardo’s most recognised painting not because it is his best, but because it is on prominent display as part of one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world. The Louvre has made the Mona Lisa what it is.
Museums shape our understanding of art, what is popular and important is sometimes the direct result of museum exposure.
Collecting collector’s collections
The provenance, or the history of artwork ownership, is a hugely important part of art history and museum work. Sometimes artworks are purchased by museums directly, but more often museums are gifted part or whole of an individual’s collection. In many ways, a museum is a collection of other people’s collections. For example, over 9,000 works in the collection of the British Museum came from just one man: Felix Slade. The only son of wealthy landowners, Slade spent his spare funds collecting prints, books and glass. One of his favourite artists was Rembrandt, whose work Slade pursued through European auction houses with precision.
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The works Slade bequeathed to the British Museum upon his death in 1848 are some of the best quality Rembrandts in the museum’s prized collection of prints. But why Rembrandt and not some other Dutch master artist? Slade’s personal taste, availability in the art market, cultural popularity, all of the above.
These works by Rembrandt are now a central part of the museum’s collection and have inspired several books and exhibitions over the past 175 years. Were they not collected by Slade, where would they be today?
The choice for something to be preserved and displayed is, many times, based on personal bias. This bias shapes our shared history by choosing which works are significant enough to preserve. As an art historian, it is important to reflect on how the personal tastes of an individual have shaped the preservation of the artwork you are studying. It is simply part of its history.
Artworks are sensitive
There is also the issue of how art is displayed in the galleries of a museum. For example, art history is dominated by oil painting because, in many ways, oil painting is far more durable than other art materials. We see less drawing on display because drawing materials (paper, graphite, ink, etc.) are extremely light sensitive and can only really be exposed to gallery lights for about three months, every 10 years.
Oil paintings, on the other hand, are far more stable and able to withstand long periods, years even, of display without significant impact. Display in museums is a complicated, technical process that requires a lot of expert labour. Changing displays frequently is not easy. These logistics structure what we see and for how long. Visual permanence in the galleries impacts what gets discussed.
Museums are essential, but they not neutral
Art history is the study of an artwork’s context: who made it, how it represents the world in which it was made and artist biography. Art history also includes the politics of artwork display – where something is seen, how it is accessed, who owns it are all also part of its context. Museums are complicated and fascinating spaces that have a lot of power in constructing our relationship to art and its social and cultural meaning.
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Studying a work of art as part of a collection is an essential component of art history. This why our art history programme at City Lit includes gallery-based and collection-focused courses.
Now that museums and galleries are back open, so is our museum and gallery-based offer. The expert art historians that lead our museum-based courses all have extensive experience working in museum collections from operations and research to education and curation.
Our introduction to museum collections’ courses focus on the history of specific artworks, on museum practice and how the collections of the museum came to be – these courses are very popular and spaces go very quickly!
Or, we if you’d like to ‘know before you go’ to one of London’s major exhibitions, we have a series of online short courses on Summer Exhibitions in London beginning in May.
So, why museums?
Museums and galleries are the main way we get our art and by understanding these spaces we can better understand art in general. In the UK and specifically in London, we are lucky to have free access to the permanent collections, vast histories of art and objects from our shared history. It’s exciting to learn how these objects came together, see how their meaning is contingent on where they are kept and how their histories persist into the present.
Explore the full range of expertly curated, Museum-based courses from City Lit.
Sarah Jaffray is an art historian, educator and curator who is currently Art History coordinator for City Lit. In addition to teaching at City Lit, Sarah is also a lecturer for University of Arts London.