Thursday, 31 March 2016




I recently got the Google Cultural Institute plug-in for my browser. This plug-in means that every time I open a new tab in my browser, I see a new painting or work of art. The other day, the painting that came up when I opened a new tab was the one below, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hieronymus Francken II’s The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting the Collection of Pierre Roose.
The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting the Collection of Pierre Roose, c. 1621-23. Source
This painting caught my eye because it is set in a cabinet of curiosities. In the painting, Albert and Isabella are visiting Pierre Roose’s private collection of art and artefacts. The painting, completed in the early 17th century, shows an early phase of cabinets of curiosities. During this phase, collections were often encyclopaedic, featuring a variety of objects and art from a variety of periods. In fact, art works, scientific instruments, naturalia and artefacts were all the object of study and admiration. This painting, and others like it, is populated by persons who were as interested in discussing scientific instruments as they were in admiring paintings.

Exploring this painting and its history and background led me to wonder how other artists in different centuries depicted museums and their visitors.

One hundred and fifty years after Brueghel and Francken depicted a private cabinet of curiosity, Johan Joseph Zoffany was commissioned by Queen Charlotte to paint the Uffizi’s Tribuna room, which held some of the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s collection. This painting depicts a real room in a real palace. Zoffany, however, added some artworks to the Tribuna’s walls, some of which were really elsewhere in the Uffizi or even in the Pitti Palace.
The Tribuna of the Uffizi, c. 1772-1777. Source.
Zoffany’s creative liberties also led him to put lots and lots of people in the room, which would not have been normal. In fact, the overabundance of spectators is what led Queen Charlotte to refuse to hang the painting in her private apartments.

The Tribuna was organised to show the different styles of the masters, and Zoffany and the custodians of the Uffizi collection seemed to be more interested in suggesting a multitude of ideas than in providing a coherent program, as we would today.

Bullock's Napoleonic exhibition. Source
William Bullock was an English collector who owned and operated a museum-come-exhibition hall. Bullock first opened the Museum of Natural Curiosities in Liverpool in 1795. This museum featured many objects brought back from Cook’s expeditions. Bullock and his collection moved to London, where the Egyptian Hall was erected in 1812. The Egyptian Hall at first held Bullock’s collection of artefacts, but became an exhibition space in 1819 when Bullock auctioned off his 32,000 piece collection.

In 1816, Bullock and the Egyptian Hall hosted an exhibit of Napoleonic objects, including Napoleon’s carriage taken from Waterloo. The exhibition received about 220,000 visitors, which was a significant number since the population of London at that time was just over 1 million inhabitants.
Bullock's Laplander exhibition. Source
In 1822, Bullock brought a family of Laplanders (Sami) to London. This exhibition featured a snowy, painted backdrop and the exhibition itself ‘displayed’ a family of Sami and their reindeer.
For modern readers, displaying humans in a museum exhibit is unacceptable. Unfortunately, even 100 years after Bullock's exhibition it remained acceptable to display humans in museum exhibitions. At the Colonial Exposition, held in Paris in 1931, people from colonies all over the world were brought to Paris to be displayed for visitors.

But what do these paintings and postcards tell us about museums in the past, and what lessons do they have for museums today?

As we can see in the Brueghel and Zoffany paintings, display practices in the 17th and 18th century were different than today. Cabinets of curiosities and private collections like the one held in the Uffizi were not necessarily organised by a particular theme. I think that this method of display should not necessarily be discounted by modern museum professionals, since it can allow visitors to make connections between objects or paintings and styles that they would not be able to do if everything was sorted into different rooms.

These paintings and postcards also serve to illustrate how access to museum collections has been growing since the 17th century. For example, in the first painting only Roose and his wealthy elite guests have access to his works of art and artefacts. However, in the early 19th century anyone who could afford the 1 shilling admission fee could see one of Bullock's exhibitions.

Bullock's exhibitions also have two important lessons for museums today: a) museum content should be topical and relevant to its visitors, and b) including interactive elements in exhibits engages visitors. Now these concepts seem obvious to museum professionals today, but I for one was surprised that Bullock's exhibits included these things in the 19th century.

Do you know of any other paintings which feature museums or cabinets of curiosity? Let me know in the comments!

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