In a recent essay, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Philippe de Montebello, placed authenticity at the core of public trust in an art museum.* There should never be any question of a work of art on display being anything other than authentic. Nor should information about works of art, he said, be distorted for political or other ends. The magic of the original, the authentic, is to be protected at all costs. This is what the public expects and this is what it should be given.

The argument is forcefully made, and the man who makes it must know perfectly well how many questions he is begging. For if we were to put on miraculous spectacles that allowed us to detect every piece of retouching on an Old Master painting, a trip to any of our great galleries would give us a shock. And if we could wave a wand, and remove all inauthentic additions from our sculpture collections, noses, fingers, legs and feet, fig leaves and penises alike would fly out the window. And if what was inauthentic were to be removed from the Cloisters in upper Manhattan, what would be left of those wonderful cloisters?

To rebuild the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, says de Montebello, would constitute further desecration of a ruined site. This is a striking case, and I agree. But what about those curators who, after the Second World War, and to the applause of apparently the whole of German academe, removed nearly all the early-nineteenth-century restorations from the antique sculptures in the Glyptothek in Munich, including Bertel Thorvaldsen’s additions to the Aegina sculptures? They were purists in pursuit of the authentic at any cost. But were they not vandals too? Every museum of any great age may have some charge of vandalism to face. The British Museum cleaned the traces of paint off the Elgin marbles. The Victoria and Albert scrubbed their Renaissance terra cottas.

Some objects are lucky, lurking in vaults till the danger is past. At the British Museum I was admiring a Roman head of Hercules, after the original by Lysippus, which the label told me had been “set into a modern bust by the sculptor Joseph Nollekens.” (Nollekens died in 1823: “modern” means probably eighteenth century.) The bust was lavish and huge, and skillfully set off the head, which had been extracted from the lava of Vesuvius. Nearby was the Rondanini Faun, a Roman piece from the second century AD, whose head, arms, and legs had been restored by François Duquesnoy in the seventeenth century.

Objects like this, in the past, have caused embarrassment to curators, who have hidden them away. The ones I mention are beautiful, but many of the results of early restorations are not beautiful at all. The Arundel marbles in Oxford are not, for the most part, beautiful. They only acquire their unique interest when their past is explained to us (that they belong to the earliest phase of English collecting of classical art, in the Stuart period). Viewed as classical sculpture, they are not authentic. They have been skinned by the restorers, and their features have been distorted in the skinning.

The older the museum, the greater the likelihood that it will possess objects, or classes of object, that are of interest as much for their history as collected items as for their intrinsic qualities. The great accumulation of self-portraits in the Vasari corridor of the Uffizi, for instance, no doubt contains many artistic duds, but it would be missing the point to weed these out on grounds of artistic merit.

The British Museum, 250 years old last year, has, in the course of its long expansion, shed whole parts of its collection. Its interest in natural history was devolved to the Natural History Museum. Part of its collection of portraits went to the National Portrait Gallery. Most traumatically, its library, which at the outset had been the core of the collection, became a separate institution in 1973, and moved to new premises in St. Pancras in 1998. This left the famous round reading room (a building under preservation order) without a function. It also involved what many at the time thought a great act of vandalism, the removal of George III’s collection of books from the King’s Library.

The British Museum (the familiar building in Bloomsbury) was built in quadrangular form, and the King’s Library (the earliest part of the museum to be built) formed the whole of the east side of the square. It is an enormous structure, of double height, lined with glass-fronted bookcases which could on no account be removed and which were now due to be entirely emptied. As with the (much later) round reading room, there were severe restrictions on future use.

It was decided that the room should become home to a permanent exhibition devoted to the Enlightenment, to the age in which the museum was founded. Here would be an appropriate place for the kind of objects mentioned above: a collection of busts, not recently displayed in public, honoring the founders of the museum and other great men—traditional furnishings for a library; antique statues which, to the purist in the classical collection, might seem stylistic hybrids, but which could happily be displayed as illustrations of the history of taste; shells, dried plants, and other natural history specimens; artifacts from around the world, trophies from famous explorers. But one thinks twice, in a museum, before using the term “exploration.” One says rather: “In the middle of the eighteenth century, voyagers from Europe began to join the many skilled navigators who had been sailing the Pacific Ocean for centuries.” Captain Cook is a mere voyager—it is the chap in the outrigger who is the skilled navigator.

The labels of the new exhibition would not have passed their examination by de Montebello, for they have certainly been politically inspired. One reads: “In the eighteenth century there were many people of African ancestry living at all levels of British society.” Quite untrue. There were no black duchesses, judges, doctors, university students, or bankers. There was a black milkmaid in Bristol, but one doubts there were “many” black shepherds. There were black coal miners, weavers, soldiers, road builders, pets of the aristocracy, denizens of the sporting demimonde. Those were the levels for the people of African ancestry.

The museum’s glass-fronted wall cases, filled with literally thousands of objects, are sparsely labeled in such a way as to make it impossible to learn anything about, say, the handsome display of Iznik pottery from Turkey or to tell what story is being told on the individual maiolica dishes (or where such pieces were made). A typical label reads: “Tibetan and Indian wood, stone, ivory, bronze and clay objects inscribed in Kannada, Telugu, Khoroshti, Nagari, Lanthsha, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Gupta, Chinese, Manchu and Brahmi scripts in various South Asia languages (third– nineteenth century AD).” If you already know the difference between a pinna shell, a black-lip pearl oyster, a leopard cone shell, and an imperial moth volute (or only need your memory jogged) this is the place for you.

The rest of us are left to wonder how a tribute to eighteenth-century intellectual life, with its passion for taxonomy, can have developed such indifference to informing the visitor what exactly he is seeing. A notice claims that a complete handlist is available. I asked to borrow this, while looking around, and was told that nobody had made such a request before. If I took the handlist with me, others would not be able to consult it.

So I sat down beside the attendant (who was manning the desk where you are encouraged to handle objects from the collection) and tried to work out what I had seen. But it is quite impossible to do so. Only by matching accession numbers can you identify an object, and even then the descriptions in the handlist are uninformative. Anyway, few of the accession numbers are visible.

On some objects, such as Babylonian bricks, there are indeed elaborate old labels, in gilded script, dating from an era when the museum must have expected you to want to know what you were looking at. There are also, by the way, many shelves lined with a random selection of books. These books came from the House of Commons Library. There they were apparently regarded as unneeded, and were borrowed as “wallpaper.” You have to understand, as you examine their spines, that you are missing the point if you so much as read their titles. Just as you are missing the point if you try to guess which of the shells is the imperial moth volute.

It makes for a depressing day’s outing, in the end, but at least the room is still beautiful and the displays (which are intended as permanent) can all be changed, when the fanfare of their launch has been forgotten. The books can be sent back to the House of Commons, or to Oxfam if the Commons (as I suspect) won’t have them. The Enlightenment theme could be confined to half the space at most, and the rest of the room could be devoted frankly to open storage. It is amazing how much of the British Museum, how much of that central space in that central site, has been squandered on woffle, and how little serious display, in the end, its great recent benefactions have achieved.

This Issue

August 12, 2004