Peter Murray Memorial Lecture: ‘How to form a national collection’

Francesca Castelli, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses the recent Peter Murray Memorial Lecture, delivered by Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi. The lecture is named in honour of Peter Murray, who founded Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art in 1967 and is part of Opening Up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck, a series of events celebrating the Department’s 50th anniversary.

A full house with a captivated audience joined Birkbeck’s Clore Lecture Theatre on 30 November to listen to Dr Gabriele Finaldi as he took us through the events surrounding the foundation and the development of the collections of two museums: Madrid’s Prado and London’s National Gallery.

These two museums differ dramatically in their genesis. While the Madrid museum was very much conceived as ‘an act of royal generosity to the nation’, the London institution was born through the will of the British Parliament.

Opened in 1819 by Ferdinand VII as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture, the Prado was to all intents and purposes a public showcase of the king’s personal collection. Indeed, all of the 311 pictures came from the Royal Residences in and around Madrid and were the works of Spanish artists. It was not until the nationalisation of Church property in 1868 and the incorporation of the holdings of the National Museum of Painting in 1872 that the distinctly local character of the collection started to move towards a more international dimension, with the introduction of works by Flemish and Italian masters like Rubens and Titian.

The National Gallery, on the other hand, was not born through the nationalisation of a royal art collection. It was instead established when Parliament offered a £60,000 grant for the purchase and display of 38 paintings from the estate of banker John Julius Angerstein, including Sebastiano Del Piombo’s s majestic Raising of Lazarus. The National Gallery opened its doors to the public on 10 May 1824 in Angerstein’s former residence at 100 Pall Mall, a building far too small and modest to accommodate a growing museum whose democratic ambition was to be ‘a gallery for all’. The collection was moved to its current location on Trafalgar Square in 1838 and was enriched with important Italian Renaissance works from the likes of Raphael and Correggio, as well as French paintings from the eighteenth century by Poussin and Claude through generous bequests. But it was van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, acquired in 1842, that seemed to pique the interest of Victorian crowds with its richness of detail and elegant symbolism.

The account offered by Dr Finaldi of the strength of the relationship between the National Gallery and its audience that became apparent during World War II was particularly poignant.  At a time when the museum was officially closed and the collection evacuated, former director Kenneth Clark began to organise daily piano concerts that were open to everyone. Myra Hess and other musicians played over 1,600 lunchtime concerts from late 1939 until the end of the war.  And in 1942, spurred by a letter written by a member of the public to The Times, Clark was persuaded to take one painting at a time out of storage and put it on display so that Londoners would have something to admire. This event marked the start of the tradition of the Picture of the Month that still exists today, and allowed the museum’s mission to offer the ‘enjoyment of beauty’ to be restored when it was needed the most.

Museums are thus places that bring people together and in more recent years both the National Gallery and the Prado have undergone extensive expansion projects aiming to provide a better environment for their visitors, as well as a modern space for their growing collection, temporary exhibitions and conservation facilities.

Dr Finaldi’s final point was about the opportunities offered by new technologies and social platforms and how these are instrumental in reaching out to new and larger audiences. Museums are called to have their own digital strategy in order to maximise the potential harnessed by the digitalisation of culture and to help people to experience art in different ways. Earlier this year, in a ground-breaking and unprecedented event, the five museums where the existing van Gogh Sunflowers are located, came together in a sort of virtual exhibition thanks to a live Facebook broadcast and gave life to a fully immersive digital experience supported by VR technology and Computer-generated Imagery.  An audience of some 6 million people connected to enjoy an interactive tour of the virtual gallery while van Gogh’s great-grandson shared his personal memories of the iconic pictures.

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