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Archaeologists and Aesthetes in the Sculpture Galleries of the British Museum: 1800-1939.

When he resigned from the post of Librarian of the British Museum in 1811, Francis Douce gave as one of his reasons 'the general pride and affected consequences' of the 'motley and often trifling committees' whose 'fiddle faddle acquisition of incessant reports, the greatest part of which can inform them of nothing, or, when they do, of what they are generally incapable of understanding or fairly judging of' had made life thoroughly objectionable (Bodley MS Douce e.28). But while the preparation of reports for the trustees may have oppressed poor Douce, the existence of such rich documentation in the British Museum has enabled Ian Jenkins (a curator in the Greek and Roman Department and who is made of sterner stuff) to reconstruct not only what was achieved in the way of acquisition of Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Lycian, and of the construction and arrangement of the Museum's sculpture galleries over nearly a century and a half, but also the at times fierce battles that were waged in committee over rival schemes. These debates and their fruits throw a vivid light on the intellectual history of the period and make this book of interest to a far wider audience than those interested in the minutiae of museology.

The title neatly encapsulates the tension between art and archaeology in the 19th century, a tension that is well brought out in the debates that ocurred over the proposals in 1852--3 and 1857 to amalgamate the nation's 'high art': to combine the British Museum's sculptures with the National Gallery's pictures. Edward Hawkins, Keeper of Antiquities from 1826--60, was loath to part with his charges, and when asked by a parliamentary committee whether he would be willing to make a distinction between the archaeological and aesthetic qualities of the Elgin marbles, replied 'our collections are available for both purposes. They are for the instruction of artists and for the gratification for men of taste and they are also of great assistance to the historian'.

The inherent tension can be seen in the discussion over the very plan of the Museum. Some wanted the building subordinated to the needs of a collection that was forever growing; others argued successfully for a building whose aesthetic qualities were paramount. Smirke's Greek Revival 'Temple of the Muses' won the day.

The underlying ideology of the museum from its foundation was one of Progress (dread word!): progress in the arts paralleled progress in industry. Not for nothing was Westmacott's 'Progress of Civilisation' the subject of the pedimental decoration of Smirke's facade, and a document of which Jenkins makes skilful use is a watercolour of 1845 by James Stephanoff which illustrates the rationale. The sculpture of antiquity is shown -- somewhat anachronistically -- emerging from 'primitive' origins in Indian and Central American art to the 'perfection' of the surviving decoration of the Parthenon: 'Each division minutely observed, overlaps with the next and thus we pass through the Achaemenid, Egyptian, Etruscan, early and later Greek until we come to the crowning glory of the Elgin marbles and the age of Pheidias' (p. 61). Colour is one quality that is left behind in this 'ascent', and it is ironic that in real life the Elgin marbles were but the wrapping for a chryselephantine image of Athena that would have been every bit as colourful as the painted Hindu and Javanese figures of the 'primitive beginnings'. It was an aversion to colour, coupled with the belief that grey was somehow 'progressive', that led to the Front Entrance Hall of the Museum being decorated in its present drab tones. Jenkins, by contrast, is alert -- and sympathetic -- to polychromy both in antiquity and in the decorative history of his workplace. See especially his plate III: L. Collman's colourful yet sober scheme dated 1847, which many hope will be adopted next time round.

MICHAEL VICKERS Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
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Author:Vickers, Michael
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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