The Art Museum and its Origins


Bulls and horses, Caves of Lascaux, France

One of the oldest displays of art is in the caves at Lascaux, which contain around 2,000 painted figures, including over 900 identified as animals, dated at around 16,000 BC. There are similar caves at Altamira in Spain, and some aboriginal rock art in Australia may be at least 40,000 years old.

The prehistoric paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere were hardly intended for public display, as are the art works in contemporary museums: there was no public versus private life then in the sense we understand today. The caves were sacred places, where ritual magic was probably performed. It is a short step from this idea, of sacred objects in a sacred space, to the vast number of temples produced by all civilisations throughout history. Perhaps the most familiar of these, at least to western scholars, is the Parthenon, where Pheidias’s giant gold and ivory statue of Athena once stood. Only copies of this work survive but a modern reproduction is shown below. The purpose of the original awe-inspiring statue was to intimidate the worshipper and demonstrate the political and military power of Athens in 438BC.

Reproduction Statue of Athena, Sculptor Alan LeQuire

Long before the founding of Athens, the Egyptians had perfected the arts of painting and sculpture which adorned their monolithic palaces, temples and tombs. The beauty and perfection of their crafts was revealed to the world when Howard Carter broke into Tutankhamen’s Tomb in 1922, to reveal his sarcophagus and the many exquisite funereal objects that surrounded it.

Even more familiar to western art lovers is the Sistine Chapel, which now serves as a museum dedicated to the great Renaissance works of art by Michelangelo, Raphael and others, as well as its primary function as a place of worship. During this period, in Italy at least, new works of art were commissioned by the Catholic Church as well as by the secular rulers of the Italian states. The churches had the character of museums only insofar as the artworks were intended to educate the public about religious myths, rather than the aesthetic merits of the art that was necessary to instruct the illiterate masses. Works commissioned by cardinals or princes, by contrast, were prized for their artistic values and the subtle scholarship that they conveyed. Large secular commissions like Botticelli’s Primavera (c 1482) were intended for private viewing, not public display.

Both Greece and Italy were important destinations on the grand tour undertaken by English gentlemen in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was from this vast store of architecture, sculpture and paintings that the idea and need for public museums arose, at least in England. Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and the removal of its portable works of art ran parallel to the purloining of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon frieze by the English lord. The power and spoils of both French and English conquest had to be displayed somewhere.

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford via The Guardian

The original meaning of ‘museum’ was a study or library, and one of the first English museums, the Ashmolean, opened in Oxford in 1683, had this antiquarian character. The British museum also began with an antiquarian collection, bequeathed by Sir Hans Sloan in 1753, and was the first national museum open to the public. The first antiquities of note were Sir William Hamilton’s Greek vases, which formed the nucleus of the vast collection of archaeological treasures it contains today.

In France, the Louvre had its genesis when Louis XIV moved to The Palace of Versailles in 1672 and left his collection of painting and sculpture behind. It opened as a museum in 1793, after the Revolution, with a display of paintings confiscated from church and royal property, which ostensibly became public property. Today, it is one of the largest museums of fine art in the world.

Another great museum that began with a royal collection was Catherine the Great’s Hermitage, which comprised Flemish and Dutch paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Veronese and Van Dyke. Even in her lifetime the Empress acquired over 4,000 paintings and 38,000 books. After the revolution the Hermitage and Winter Palace were merged into state museums and today include a great many important impressionist works.

In the 18th Century, many royal collections of art were nationalised throughout Europe but Britain established its National Gallery somewhat late, in 1824, and included important works from several private sources purchased by public funds. The purpose of the Tate Gallery was to house British art. In 1853, J M W Turner’s estate bequeathed some 300 painting and 30,000 sketches to the nation, and these ended up in the Tate Gallery. Sir Henry Tate, the sugar baron, left his collection to the Tate in 1897 and paid for the Millbank gallery that bears his name. The gallery, and its offshoots, are now more associated with modern art, including many important 19th and early 20th century foreign paintings as well as contemporary works at the Tate Modern.

It is clear from the foregoing potted history that the character of the art museum developed as a result of the social changes occurring in Europe since the 18th Century. The somewhat later developments in America followed similar trends, several being financed by the wealth of 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. The paintings originally comprised the personal collection of John Taylor Johnston, a railroad executive, but were soon expanded to include a collection of antiquities.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was founded for the “promotion and encouragement and education in art and the enlightenment of the public.” This meant modern art and The Museum of Non-Objective Painting was founded in 1939. The significance is that instead of collecting works from the distant past, the museum was actively promoting the work of radical and contemporary artists, which might otherwise remain unknown to the museum going-public. The term ‘enlightenment’ clearly referred to the taste of the museum’s owners. One should mention in passing that a great many galleries open to the public are salerooms whose purpose is to make a profit. Of historical importance among these were the Goupil Gallery, founded in 1850, where Theo Van Gogh was employed in the Brussels branch. Hundreds of such galleries and salerooms include both the works of established artists and a great many works by lesser known artists, whose paintings may never be shown in a national or state museum.

The list of major museums across the wealthier nations is vast, and includes a stupendous collection of works of fine art. The financial costs of maintaining, running and expanding these enterprises is commensurately great. This is not entirely surprising, since the chanelling of artistic work into high cultural status is to be found throughout history, from the Egyptian Pharoas, the Chinese Emperors, to the palaces and cathedrals of Europe.

The question arises, what social purpose do museums of fine art serve today. Even as late as the 19th Century, many works of art were focussed on glorifying national leaders (David’s portraits of Napoleon) or promoting sentimental Victorian values (Holman Hunt’s maudlin religiosity). The history of art, evident from great national collections, carries messages, sometimes covert, about the development of culture throughout the world. This is less evident from the cultural tip represented by contemporary works, especially exhibitions. As an example of this, the recent Gilbert and George exhibition at the Tate Modern displayed paintings that hardly represent mainstream cultural values, but works that are none the less entertaining and impressive. Another example would be the Anish Kapoor installation at the Tate Modern.

Tate Modern, London via Flickr

Some great repositories of art remain in private hands and are rarely open to the public. One such example is Buckingham palace, the site of which had once been earmarked for the construction of the National Gallery. Part of the Queen’s collection is on display in the Queen’s gallery and at other sites, including Windsor castle. Other great country houses throughout Britain supplement this private store of art. In addition, every municipality of any size boasts some kind of art gallery, often combined with a library or museum.

Art galleries were never as popular as the cinemas that populated nearly every town since the 1920s, but the sense of opulence was similar, if on a grander scale. Most will recall the sense of awe imposed by a great art gallery, with its marble floors and columns, leather viewing couches and great windows flooding the palatial interior with cool and even light. Huge paintings, with elaborate gold frames added to the majesty of the occasion.

Modern galleries, like the Queensland Art Gallery, opened in 1981, provide more functional interiors and flexible exhibition space built from temporary walls. This places more emphasis on the works of art, rather than the intimidating architecture of the more traditional museum. Upkeep of such modern galleries reduces running costs by integrating security, environmental control and public amenitites, including restaurants and shops as well as providing ample storage and conservation facilities. The modern gallery is a public or corporate enterprise which employs a large staff to make it run efficiently and profitably.

The organizing of major exhibitions often involves the transport of irreplaceable art works from all over the world and the huge responsibility of ensuring their correct display and protection against loss or damage. Such exhibitions may be concurrent with others, of a single artist’s work, retrospective or new, all of which require careful organisation. Administration, therefore, looms large in the running of a major art gallery, as well as the considerable costs of dispaying and maintaining a permanent collection.

The character of painting has changed continuously over centuries, reflecting prevailing culture and ideas. Museums too reflect changes in taste and class of audience. They compete with theatres, parks and other public sites of leisure or entertainment. It was Turner who introduced images of steam trains and ships into his paintings, a trend followed by Monet, with his painting of the Saint-Lazarre train station. It is ironic, therefore, that the the Musée d’Orsay is now housed in a disused railway station, a case of life imitating art.

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The acquisition of new works is fraught with contention, and often involves begging governments or philanthropists for subsidies to acquire important works that suddenly come on the market. A recent case involved a drawing by Raphael entitled “Head of a Muse,” which sold at Christies to a foreign buyer for over 29 million pounds. A temporary ban has been placed on the export of this drawing by the British culture minister. Such interventions by governments show that art remains a matter of national prestige. Ongoing demands by Greek and Egyptian governments for the return of ‘rescued’ antiquities adds another dimension to intergovernmental squabbles. A topical example is the dispute between Egypt and Germany over the Head of Nefertiti, which has recently been given pride of place in Berlin’s new museum. A more serious example is the looting of thousands of objects from the Iraq Museum during the invasion. The safeguarding of a nation’s culture, therefore, is regarded seriously. Disputes about art purloined by the Nazis continue to this day, with the Leopold Museum in Vienna among the accused.

A surprise visit to a major art museum is sure to offer a special exhibition or two, as well as the permanent collection. The need to attract the public and sustain public or private funding drives continual innovation aimed at attracting new patrons. One is just as likely to encounter a mind-numbing installation of industrial waste as a participatory exhibition where children are invited to scribble on walls or make sculptures from pieces of coloured plastic. Having fun is par for the course and stands in contrast to the long-faced connoisseur brandishing the museum’s latest shiny and expensive catalogue.

The art museum is deeply embedded in the culture of the modern city, and represents a major attraction on the itinerary of the educated tourist. Such museums ultimately depend on the creative powers of the thousands of artists who aspire to have their works displayed to the public. In this regard, there is no shortage of tallented aspirants and little likelihood that the larger museums will suffer much from the impact of the recession that has depressed the art market and forced some private collectors to cash in their investments. Rather, it provides museums with opportunities to acquire desirable works for the public at more affordable prices. The display of a work to the many rather than the few increases its economic value, and provides some justification for the continued support of art museums by public authorities.

TTcutTony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics.




  • Pingback: uberVU - social comments()

  • InfiniteRand

    I wonder if part of the history of museums is the tendencies of passionate people in power to overestimate how much art affects people in general due to the fact that it affected them to abnormally high degree