Tag Archives: Art

On breaking up big museum collections

This morning I read a fascinating item by Hrag Vartanian, at Al Jazeera America, titled “Break up the major museums to save them.” I encourage reading the whole thing, but very very briefly, he argues that the world’s mega museums are already absurdly big, and that rather than trying to make them bigger yet it’s time to disperse their holdings a bit.

I have a number of thoughts on this, the greatest number being a product of my upcoming book Cotton’s Library, much of which is about a great collection that eventually ended up at a mega-museum, after a long struggle to prevent its dispersal. Having chronicled this struggle, I’m sympathetic to arguments against dispersal… but it’s really a lot more complicated than that.

For one thing, there’s a world of difference between the Cotton Library—even at its maximum extent—and the modern Louvre or British Museum or the Met. Arguing that one or two rooms’ worth of long-associated items should stay associated need not mean opposing the division of composite collections of millions of items.

What’s more, the story of the Cotton library actually touches on significant precedents for such division. Since the library arrived at the British Museum as a founding collection in the mid-18th century, the BM has spun off pieces of its collection twice. Its natural history collections departed by slow, slow stages to become the Natural History Museum; the Cotton library itself left the museum as part of the (sort of) more recent British Library. I certainly don’t regard the separate establishment of these institutions as losses.

Still, this isn’t entirely what Vartanian is getting at. In fact, he specifically eschews any advocacy for administrative division and instead emphasizes spreading around mega museums’ contents, not just to new buildings in the same city but much more broadly.

I largely support this suggestion, though it’s probably a bit of a tougher sell.

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