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 Academy and Professor at Trinity College. Through the accidents of modern Irish history it happens that most of the important objects normally exhibited in the National Museum of Ireland (including the Tara brooch and the Ardagh chalice) actually belong to the Academy, and therefore Professor Mitchell was able to assure their availability for travel despite the opposition of the curators. Through his college connections Professor Mitchell achieved the same purpose with the Books of Kells, Durrow, and Armagh. So the “package” was put together, and Mr. Hoving had only to take advantage of the offer, and to help out with various arrangements.
Those arrangements include admirable precautions for security and safe handling. Throughout the tour the manuscripts will stay in a sort of lunar module, a self-contained hermetically sealed unit built by the Metropolitan Museum, with regulated temperature and humidity, and various fail-safe provisions. It might be argued that the manuscripts are actually safer in their lunar module than they are at home in Dublin, but all this travel inevitably brings repeated opportunities for catastrophe. Stressing that point, Ernst Kitzinger, University Professor at Harvard, protested in a letter to The New York Times last September that these manuscripts should never travel at all, especially since the public gets to see only the two pages to which the book is opened. Indeed, a visitor sees the holy books dimly by filtered light—another precaution for their preservation. Modern techniques make it possible to display these masterpieces more effectively in full-size color photographs and enlarged details.
But there is another purpose to exhibiting the Book of Kells: this is a modern pilgrimage, and for many people the fact of having seen The Book of Kells may be far more important than how much of it they may actually have been able to see. This is a need with which a medievalist will sympathize, but it is one the Irish Treasures exhibition could have met by shipping only one of the four volumes of the Book of Kells. The other manuscripts are unfamiliar to the general public anyway, and the Book of Durrow, a landmark in the development of European art, isn’t even an Irish work. Its importance lies precisely in the fact that it is the first known English work to combine the Irish tradition of calligraphy, and themes from Irish metalwork, with themes from Anglo-Saxon metalwork. This is the beginning of the Hiberno-Saxon synthesis which flourished in Northumbria at the end of the seventh century and eventually influenced the whole course of European art. An entirely different exhibition could have been devoted to this art; and the question of allowing the Book of Durrow to travel should have been reserved for such an occasion.
In his letter protesting the hazards of shipping around manuscripts (a protest supported by many colleagues), Kitzinger was assuming that travel would cause no harm to the metalwork, but I am not so confident. The spectacular prehistoric gold should, in general, present no problems, since gold is the most stable of metals; but bronze is far more vulnerable and two or three of the prehistoric bronzes look to me too fragile to travel at all. The great Ardagh chalice and the Tara brooch are both extremely complex constructions which must be protected from vibration as well as corrosive atmosphere. Perhaps one of these should be allowed to travel for such an occasion, but never the two together. I note with relief that the Moylough belt shrine, the third masterpiece of eighth-century Irish metalwork, was judged too fragile to travel. In my view, cautious professional review would have reduced the list of sixty-nine objects to about fifty, including one volume of the Book of Kells and much truly splendid gold.
But the concerns of public relations obviously dominate big museum exhibitions today. Understatement is not common in California, and giant billboards all over the Bay Area recently proclaimed “Blockbuster Exhibitions / King Tut Is Coming / Irish Treasures Are Here.” The de Young Museum has a new phone number for information—just dial KING TUT. The billboards went up three weeks before the Irish exhibition opened and seventeen months before Tutankhamen would be on view, at a time when the Egyptian show was in Los Angeles. The anonymous thousands responding to this message may have to stand in line for hours. Their money is eagerly sought. We can hardly regret the share of the proceeds from the sale of trinkets that will go to the research and acquisition funds of the Dublin lenders; our own museums claim to be constantly in need. But what do our museums offer these twentieth-century pilgrims? What do they offer those of us who have long wanted to study the works of art now made available?
The Irish show in New York was truly the Dark Ages revisited, and indeed at times it also seemed like the Black Hole of Calcutta. Spotlights on the high ceiling gave dramatic and distortingly selective light. The Tara brooch, for example, was correctly displayed in an independent case which allowed it to be seen from all four sides. A bright spotlight gave the front brilliant highlights and harsh shadows, but there was only faint light on the back, which happens to have the details of decoration and technique most important for the specialist’s study. The Tiffany approach to display required by the top administration at the Met has become notorious, and Robert Hughes in Time quite properly remarked that “everything looks as if it were for sale.” Dare we hope that displaying works of art merely to reveal their inherent qualities will be the first step of a new administration at the Met? In San Francisco the exhibition is more spaciously arranged, and the light is better, but still it can be distortingly glamorous. It seems that our museums assume that the public will respond not to works of art but to the salesmanship of glitter. There are curators at the Met who understand the problem, for in an obscure corner at the end of the Irish exhibition were two well-presented cases with a very interesting selection of comparative material from the Met’s own collections.
The Metropolitan has published a catalogue at the decent price of $6.95 but its quality is mixed. It includes good short essays by appropriate Dublin specialists on four of the five periods into which the exhibition is divided, but the other essay, the general introduction, and the catalogue entries are by Frank Mitchell, admittedly an amateur in this field. Some of the metalwork techniques are adequately described, but the historical issues surrounding Irish art become confused and the treatment of illuminated manuscripts is hopeless. The short entry for the Book of Durrow is not only superficial but internally contradictory. Without explanation the Athlone crucifixion plaque is dated a century earlier than in the established literature. The confused discussion of the Book of Kells gives no hint of the cosmopolitan sources reflected in this most complex work of art, influences unique in Irish art of the time, and always the subject of lively controversy. The catalogue entries ignore essential comparative material in other museums and the very short bibliographies often cite only the spokesmen for Irish nationalism. This does no credit to Irish scholarship. It is understandable that Frank Mitchell, the principal entrepreneur of this exhibition, should write a short preface for the catalogue, but the historical essays should all have been assigned to appropriate specialists in Dublin, and the catalogue entries to the curatorial staff.
The metalwork is illustrated by color photographs made by Lee Boltin for the Metropolitan Museum. His work would do credit to Vogue, but his glamorous light often distorts these objects and his brilliant use of decorator colors in the background (lavender, shocking pink, mauve, puce, etc.) compete with the art. The backgrounds have no texture, and there is no other indication of scale, so that objects may appear on the page enlarged or reduced, without any sense of their physical reality. A prehistoric bronze boar about three inches long, originally mounted on some object such as a helmet, here appears spread across two pages at five times actual size, and is lighted to look like a work of monumental sculpture.
Many of Mr. Boltin’s photographs of details lack depth of focus, and his only photograph of the superb twisted gold earrings from Castlerea was spoiled by camera vibration. Just as distressing as the blatant commercialism of Mr. Boltin’s photography is the incompetence of some of the color photographs of manuscripts, all the work of one Dublin photographer who for some years has had a monopoly on photographing these books. His inadequate work has haunted other publications, and continues to do so in the transparencies used to supplement the present exhibition. This was the occasion to get the manuscripts properly photographed, both for publication and for the supplementary display, which should have consisted of good prints made to the exact size of the manuscripts, with selected details greatly enlarged. Such a display would be both attractive and informative. Other museums must take the package assembled by the Met; by using such photographs and publishing such a catalogue, the Met has betrayed both them and the public trust.
The other medieval exhibition this year was entirely different in origin, but it also suffered from high administrative decisions which greatly undermined a unique opportunity. This was an enormous exhibition of Late Antique and Early Christian Art developed over a period of five years by a team led by Kurt Weitzmann, the eminent Byzantinist at Princeton who happened to have supervised Dr. Hoving’s dissertation in 1959. Although at the last moment, presumably for political reasons, the important Russian contribution was withdrawn, and although the museum was unable to obtain some other individual masterpieces, this was the largest and best collection of the art of late antiquity ever assembled under one roof. Of American museums only the Met could have attempted such a show and only Kurt Weitzmann could have brought it about, for the Museum depended on his international reputation and on his innumerable friendships in Europe. But while the physical achievement was splendid, the expected benefits for learning were sadly diluted.
From the beginning Weitzmann planned to produce a scholarly catalogue on the European model. He organized a team including many of his former students to write extensive critical entries for each object and short introductory essays for different topics. Nearly all this material had been assembled and revised under Weitzmann’s exacting supervision by the winter of 1977. What was then still missing could perfectly well have been quickly supplied by the curatorial staff and the catalogue published in time. In Stuttgart last spring a monumental catalogue running to 1,084 entries appeared on time for the exhibition on “The Age of the Hohenstaufen” and sold some 100,000 copies (at the remarkably reasonable price of DM 48 for four volumes) during the ten weeks of an exhibition phenomenally popular with the public and very productive for scholarship. Carrying through such a project usually means a frantic rush at the end, devoted labor, and some last-minute compromises, but art historical scholarship since the war has benefited enormously from European catalogues of this type.
The Met decided, in effect, not to be bothered. A catalogue has been announced for eventual publication, probably about a year after the exhibition.* It will contain valuable material but, detached from its original purpose, it will seem an unbalanced survey of its subject. What was needed, and intended by Professor Weitzmann, was a catalogue designed to be used during the exhibition, to offer both scholars and interested laymen a handy guide to our present knowledge of each object displayed, and to provide a starting point for library work between visits to the exhibition. This show badly needed such a catalogue, both because many of the objects were relatively unfamiliar and because of the unusual way in which the exhibition was designed to instruct those who saw it.
Among specialists Kurt Weitzmann is well known for his theories about the transmission of iconography, particularly about the crucial part that illustrated manuscripts had in conveying schemes for presenting secular as well as Christian subjects. Therefore the arrangement of the objects on display was primarily iconographic rather than chronological, or according to their material. Sometimes this proved quite interesting, as in a display case which showed similar treatment of Old Testament narratives in pottery, textiles, and small marble carvings. Any alert visitor could get the point of this juxtaposition, but often the purpose was more subtle, and there were very few general labels to explain the rationale.
The little pamphlet offered to the visitor gave a general explanation of the rather arbitrary division of iconography into “realms”—imperial, classical, secular, Jewish, and Christian—and it gave superficial remarks on a few examples of each; but it explained none of the subtler points of the arrangement. Neither this pamphlet nor the picture book sold at $2.95 gave any scholarly guidance. The Museum administration further insulted the public by imposing at the last minute the title “Age of Spirituality” in place of the simple descriptive working title “Late Antique and Early Christian Art.” (Perhaps a New York exhibition cannot be advertised as “Christian.”) But in the end the Museum’s publicity failed to arouse the general public, while scholars found the new title ridiculous.
Although the Museum’s decision not to publish the catalogue during the exhibition was disastrous, betraying the trust of all who had worked on the project, there was still plenty of time to devise reasonable substitutes. In 1959 at the Council of Europe’s London exhibition of the Romantic Era a printer’s strike delayed the catalogue at the last minute, but batches of galley proofs were stuck up on the wall in quiet corners near the objects they discussed—an inelegant solution, but a helpful one. The Met’s policy seems to require that nothing be done to intrude upon the empty mind of the visitor who comes only to gawk. Spotlights focus his attention, glitter is expected to satisfy him, and labels must not distract him.
The arrangement of the exhibition by iconographic theme, mysterious and frustrating to many visitors, had another controversial result. Large color photographs were mixed in with the works of art, sometimes even in the same cases. Some of the photographs were so good that at a quick glance they could be taken for actual objects. This is both wrong and unnecessary; the purpose of showing iconographic affinities is better achieved by assembling groups of photographs and short explanations on a wall near the appropriate cases. Works of art should be displayed simply to reveal their inherent qualities. Give them good general light, unobtrusive settings, and enough space to breathe. Label them clearly, but give us the explanatory material separately. Some cases were splendidly effective, such as the one with altar furnishings, but the marble portraits and a few ivories and silver dishes suffered from overly harsh spotlights. This gives the layman a falsely dramatic impression and it prevents the scholar from seeing some crucial details in the arbitrary shadows.
One other aspect of the Late Antique exhibition takes us back to the most frequently debated feature of the Irish exhibition: the presence of very important and fragile illuminated manuscripts. It was obviously essential to include single leaves from the famous Vatican Vergil, the Roman Vergil, and the Milan Iliad. These masterpieces are crucial for our understanding of the art of the period; it happens that they survive only in fragments, and so single leaves can easily be selected for shipping abroad. The very interesting papyri and a couple of other manuscripts also survive only as readily transported fragments.
A few other manuscripts, however, have actually been taken apart in recent years to facilitate transport and exhibition, including some in the Late Antique exhibition. This is worrying if it becomes a general precedent, for normally a manuscript book should remain bound as a unit. Among the complete works in New York were the famous Leiden Aratus manuscript with Carolingian copies of classical constellation pictures, and the great Ashburnham Pentateuch from Paris. These are manuscripts of such importance that one would rather not see them travel, but they are also great works of art central to the theme of this exhibition. With care it would have been possible to cut the threads of the binding to remove one bifolium with a good illustration, and then tie it back into place after the exhibition. That would achieve the purpose for the general public at far less risk, and if the binding were secured in the meantime the rest of the book could still be available for scholarly consultation while one bifolium was traveling. While I would not want to see this done very often I think it may be the best way to include some representation of manuscript illumination in general exhibitions of medieval art. Too many manuscripts have been traveling to such exhibitions recently, and there have been instances of improper handling at museums which lack experienced staff and special facilities for displaying manuscripts.
Bringing together related objects from different museums is one of the main educational benefits of an exhibition such as Weitzmann’s. Here were reunited the great Cyprus treasure of silver dishes showing the life of David, and separated pieces of the same ivory carvings from Berlin and Paris, and from London and Paris. The excellent symposium of European scholars organized by Professor Weitzmann was another benefit. But the fact remains that the material of the catalogue, essential to learning, was denied to casual visitors and to participants in the several scholarly meetings organized specifically to take advantage of the exhibition. This was the decision of the same administration which, for the Irish show, sponsored not a respectable catalogue but a brochure featuring commercial photography and amateur scholarship. The additional cost of intelligently presenting each of these exhibitions would have been trivial in comparison to their total budgets. But the Met seems to prefer to address itself primarily to what it conceives of as an unthinking mass audience, and to offer that audience shallow entertainment rather than the serious experience of art.
May 4, 1978