The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, Willem van Haecht (1593-1637), 1628.
The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, Willem van Haecht (1593-1637), 1628. The Rubens House

The museum, a global model of success

Due to the new lockdown of the museums, Hibou Pèlerin has been forced to take a compulsory break. He is using this time to read some new publications on cultural history. A brand new world history of the museum by Krzysztof Pomian has him riveted.

Hibou Pèlerin

Hibou Pèlerin

For many years, Hibou Pèlerin has been winging his way to cultural and historical exhibitions. For the Swiss National Museum’s blog, Pèlerin picks out one or two pearls and showcases them here – in these times of museum closures and travel warnings, a recently published book also counts as a shining gem.

With museums being closed as a result of the pandemic, we’ve suddenly realised the extent to which they are part of our lives. They may not be quite as important as spending time with family and friends, or as systemically relevant as the grocery store and the hospital. But they’re still an essential part of our culture. We visit museums for leisure purposes, in our home country and especially when travelling. We go there to find out about things or simply to be entertained, together with family, friends or guests. Statistics not only convincingly prove the popularity of museums but also indirectly show that they’ve now become important location factors. In recent decades and up to the end of 2019, be it in Switzerland, Germany, Italy or France, especially in the major centres of tourism the number of museum visits was only going in one direction: upwards. Switzerland most recently recorded 14 million visits annually, France 63 million, Germany 114 million and Italy a massive 130 million.
The Louvre is the most visited museum in the world, with more than 10 million visitors a year.
The Louvre is the most visited museum in the world, with more than 10 million visitors a year. Wikimedia / Pueri Jason Scott

Roots in Renaissance Rome

This success story, which French historian Krzysztof Pomian now describes in detail in his sumptuous three-volume world history of the museum, has been in the making for 500 years. It began, if we accept his short definition of ‘museum’, in Rome. The collection of antiquities displayed there on the Capitol from 1471 was the first publicly accessible permanent collection in a secular location. Generally speaking, until the end of the 17th century museums were established only in Italy. From there they found their way, first, into the Romance world and then the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon regions.
Michelangelo’s design for the Capitoline Hill, where the Capitoline Museums are now located. Engraving by Étienne Dupérac, 1568.
Michelangelo’s design for the Capitoline Hill, where the Capitoline Museums are now located. Engraving by Étienne Dupérac, 1568. Wikimedia
What would later become the Capitoline museums, like many other museums, was the result of a gift. Pope Sixtus IV gifted the city of Rome a collection of classical sculptures of historical importance to the city, notably the famous Roman she-wolf and a bronze-gilt statue of Hercules. The city thenceforth made the collection publicly accessible in its political heart on the Capitol, some of it out in the open air.
The Capitoline Wolf (lat. Lupa Capitolina), a bronze sculpture, probably dating from the Middle Ages.
The Capitoline Wolf (lat. Lupa Capitolina), a bronze sculpture, probably dating from the Middle Ages. Wikimedia
The gift was a gesture by the Pope towards the Roman patriciate which, in a movement spearheaded by academics, was rediscovering and reinterpreting the world of antiquity. Even one particularly art-loving Pope, Julius II (who, among other things, commissioned Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and created the Swiss Guard), was infected by this passion for the classical world. A century later, during the Counter-Reformation, Pius V added to the Capitol collections for very different reasons. He felt some of the nude marble figures were unsuitable for the papal collection in the Vatican, and had them removed.
Pope Julius II, painted by Raphael, 1511.
Pope Julius II, painted by Raphael, 1511. National Gallery
From these beginnings, the practice of collecting became more differentiated and in the centuries up to 1870 around 1,000 museums, increasingly resembling our modern-day institution, were set up, mainly in Europe. More and more often, they were also devoted to subjects outside the field of art. The museums dedicated to exploring the history of a particular nation, of which the Swiss National Museum is one, didn’t emerge until the late 19th century. In 2010 there were around 80,000 museums worldwide, most of them established after 1960. But a number of today’s most famous establishments, from the Uffizi to the Louvre and from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum to the British Museum, look back on a long history. They show that continuity, coupled with an enormous ability to adapt and transform, is part of the key to success for this institution.
The armoury of the National Museum around 1900. The largest room in the Museum was designed as the ‘nation’s hall of fame’.
The armoury of the National Museum around 1900. The largest room in the Museum was designed as the ‘nation’s hall of fame’. Swiss National Museum

The magnetism of the museum

But how did the museum come to exert such a strong pull, starting from Italy and moving on to Europe? As a pioneer in research on collections and museums, Pomian is able to draw from an abundance of resources in responding to this question. Based on the socio-historical perspective he espouses, he suggested decades ago that collections are almost always guided by interests associated with power and preserving values. Of course, there is a crucial difference as to whether these interests are of a religious, dynastic or individual nature, and whether they relate more to material or cultural and ideational values. Every collecting activity, especially a museum collection with a long-term aim, reflects and often reinforces certain values. This also explains why collections, and the museums based on those collections, often get caught up in the maelstrom of societal upheavals – or, as in the case of the Louvre following the French Revolution, emerge from them.
Ole Worm (1588-1654), physician and professor of natural philosophy in Copenhagen, used his collection to teach students.
Ole Worm (1588-1654), physician and professor of natural philosophy in Copenhagen, used his collection to teach students. Smithsonian Institution

From the treasure chamber to the museum

The concept of the museum has its roots, as the subtitle of Pomian’s recently published first volume, Du trésor au musée, succinctly sums up, in the treasure chambers of ruling dynasties and churches. In the Middle Ages these treasure chambers contained mostly objects made of gold and precious stones, such as relics and liturgical items – or the insignia of authority, such as crowns and sceptres. The trésors filled up with all kinds of booty acquired by purchase, swaps and trades. According to Pomian, a new collecting purpose was a pivotal factor in the transition from these ecclesiastical and secular ‘treasure galleries’ to the early forms of the museum. The ritual objects from the treasure chambers, often shown to the faithful only on certain occasions, connected people with the invisible divine. However, as the Capitoline collection shows, belief in this divine spirit was increasingly being replaced by an earthly, secular admiration for the products of man and nature – that is, art or oddities of all kinds. Now, during the Renaissance, this new attitude of curiosity about the world broke fresh ground. This can be gauged from the collections amassed by academics (such as Petrarch) or monarchs and popes, which reflect this new direction. Paolo Giovio, bishop, physician and favourite of the Pope, was the first to refer to his art collection as a museo. The word comes from the Greek museion, the place of the Muses. Giovio established his museo in a villa (now destroyed) in Como. Due to his prominence, it attracted attention and was widely imitated. Even more significant than the name museo, Giovio was the first to leave instructions in his will that his collection be preserved and made accessible ‘for the enjoyment of the public’. Although his will was ignored, in it Giovio had articulated the essential meaning and purpose of a museum.
Paolo Giovio’s museo in a 17th-century painting by an unknown artist.
Paolo Giovio’s museo in a 17th-century painting by an unknown artist. Wikimedia
From the perspective of a history of mentalities, Pomian sees the basis of the museum as the displacement of religion by ideology(ies), that is, individual world views or philosophies of life which could become more broadly established. From then on, society no longer focused on the hereafter, but on the here and now. A completely new concept of time also came into play. Its importance for the future of the museum cannot be overstated. While the treasure chamber exemplified the static eternity of God, the museum became a place where a society explored and engaged with its very earthly, constantly changing, present.

The museum – opening the doors to past and future

Two perspectives come into play here. On the one hand, the museum displays things that establish a connection to an idealised, and sometimes less than perfect, past. The study of these things is recommended to contemporaries – as evidenced in early history by the various waves of enthusiasm for the classical world, from Petrarch to Winckelmann and neoclassicism. The museum has also become an institution in which things are collected, sorted, classified, compared and displayed, because it is hoped that this study will provide knowledge for future developments. Particularly for the museums of natural history that were established from the 17th century onwards, this was the driver, and it’s hardly surprising that these museums appeared first in nations such as the Netherlands and Holland which were oriented towards commerce and consequently towards innovation. The museum is thus an expression of a ‘futurocentric’ society. This means a society that has sufficient confidence in its own significance that it seeks to pass on to later generations something of its knowledge and values.
Rendezvous at the Uffizi, painted by Odoardo Borranti, 1878.
Rendezvous at the Uffizi, painted by Odoardo Borranti, 1878. Wikimedia

Place of emotions and discourses 

But the history of the museum has also been influenced by the growing importance of the individual, and thus of personal (artistic) taste, since the early modern era. Secular and religious rulers and elites rely on collections in order to benefit from their reflection. Even now, ‘pride of ownership’ is one of the principal motivations of any private collecting and display activity. Pomian’s extremely detailed work, which requires patient and determined readers, is intended ultimately to extend into our present day. He not only spans a huge expanse of time but also offers a comprehensive overview of research on collections and museums, a field which has seen significant growth in recent years. Whether it’s the fascinating history of the Uffizi as an early example of a publicly accessible collection, the mystery surrounding the superb art collection of the English King Charles I, which was scattered to the winds after his beheading and whose most glittering treasures can now be found in the major museums of Europe, or the depiction of the development from the botanical garden to the natural history museum: the recently produced first volume alone makes it clear why the museum has managed to become such an essential and impactful institution.
Montagu House, where the British Museum first opened its doors to the public in 1759.
Montagu House, where the British Museum first opened its doors to the public in 1759. British Museum
The staircase at Montagu House. Stuffed animals, paintings and sculptures are on display.
The staircase at Montagu House. Stuffed animals, paintings and sculptures are on display. British Museum
Pomian’s take on the museum history of the last 200 years, and especially the present day, is eagerly anticipated. The museum boom in recent years also raises some crucial issues: How many museums does a society need? How many can it afford, and how many does it want to have? And how do these museums need to be designed, in an increasingly digital world, in order to continue to appeal to a wider public? Only if they can succeed in the latter challenge will museums continue to flourish in the 21st century – as places of emotions, curiosity and entertainment, as focal points for the history of power and political domination, as hubs of understanding and communication on aesthetic and social issues.

Krzysztof Pomian, Le Musée, une histoire mondiale – Vol. 1: Du trésor au musée

Book cover Le musée, une histoire mondiale.
Gallimard
687 pages, abundantly illustrated, Gallimard, Paris 2020. The work has so far only been published in French.
Interview with Krzysztof Pomian on his new work (in french). YouTube

Further posts

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).