Shortchanged at the Met

"Treasures of Early Irish Art" January 15, 1978

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 15, 1977 to

Treasures of Irish Art, 1500 BC-1500 AD

with essays by G. Frank Mitchell and Peter Harbison and Liam de Paor and Máire de Paor and Roger A. Stalley
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 221 pp., $6.95 (paper)

"Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century" to February 12, 1978

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977

The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a unique position in American culture. For organizing a great international loan exhibition no other American museum has quite the same influence, no other has a staff with as wide a range of skills. But the Met has corresponding national responsibilities reflected in the public money which supports it, including the indirect support of its tax-exempt status. The Met must answer to all of us. At the same time it is a vast business enterprise. The current operating budget is $32.7 million. In 1977, it cost the museum $12.6 million to sell the public $14.1 million worth of merchandise. The Met plans to build a new five-level museum store by 1979.

After studying two recent exhibitions in my own field, the early Middle Ages, I have the uneasy feeling that the Museum’s priorities are confused, and that the people seriously concerned with art have been shortchanged. I believe the Met could do a much better job for scholars and critical laymen without sacrificing its services to the general public.

The exhibition “Treasures of Early Irish Art” was conceived in secrecy and born in controversy. It seems to have delighted the large numbers of people who have seen it, but it has distressed many scholars. It consists of nearly all the masterpieces of prehistoric and medieval metalwork in the National Museum of Ireland, as well as the most famous illuminated manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College, including the Book of Durrow and two of the four volumes in which the Book of Kells is now bound. This extraordinarily rich collection has been sent on a tour for nearly two years, to New York, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Philadelphia. Naturally enough, most of the curators in charge in Dublin and many specialists in Europe and America were outspoken in their opposition. Were the risks taken in sending around such unique and fragile objects worth the benefit of exhibiting them to a new mass audience? It seems to me that some unnecessary risks are being taken, and that both scholars and the general public are being treated with too little respect for their intelligence and for their sensitivity to art. The project has the aura of commercial exploitation.

The Irish exhibition is not a public relations stunt that simply sprang from the brain of Thomas Hoving. Richard Burke, then Minister for Education in Ireland, had the idea for it when he saw the Scythian Gold exhibition in Paris in 1974. He made the arrangements without consulting the curators responsible, and last October justified his action in a statement to the Irish Press:

Sending the treasures abroad was a political decision. The image of Ireland, which has become associated with violence and strife, will benefit from this demonstration that we are a nation with a rich and deep cultural past.

Mr. Burke’s principal ally in Dublin has been Frank Mitchell, a very distinguished geologist, who is President of the Royal Irish…

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