Tag Archives: Museums

Other Cotton libraries

Whether it’s a library or a collection, “Cottonian” or simply Cotton, I think that the collection of Sir Robert Cotton deserves the first listing under any variant of the title “Cotton library.” That said, there are other notable entries on the list.

One, the Cottonian Collection now managed by the City of Plymouth, I found in my initial research and mention briefly in Cotton’s Library. This is primarily an art collection, though with more than 2,000 volumes “covering all manner of subject matter from history and archaeology, literature and the arts,” it is arguably as much a library as Robert Cotton’s larger collection, which encompassed maps, coins, stones and other curiosities as well as books and manuscripts. Also like “my” Cotton library, this was a multigenerational project; in this case its founders were not Cottons, but the last three private owners were, and thus their name attached to the collection.

So far as I know, William Cottons I-III were not any direct relation to Sir Robert. Remarkably, though, the indirect connections between their respective archives extend even to a familiar close call with combustion. “In 1983 a fire nearly destroyed the collection, though luck played its part here too, and damage was limited. One of the major effects was smoke damage resulting in a long programme of conservation, including repair to the spines and covers of the books.” I’m almost afraid to know if someone named Bentley was involved this time, too.

More recently I chanced upon references to another Cotton Library, in Ireland. Its founder Mr. Henry Cotton sounds like another worthy if presumably figurative heir to Sir Robert. In the early 19th century, according to the good Mr. O’Byrne, Henry Cotton held the post of sub-librarian at the Bodleian Library (to which Sir Robert was an early donor). Later, after joining the clergy and resettling in Ireland, Henry wrote among other works “a five-volume history of the Irish church.” Sir Robert was once commissioned to write an ecclesiastical history of England, but never made it very far; oddly enough he turned the project over to an Irish-born churchman who resettled in England.

The library left behind by Henry Cotton appears to be a fine collection, and even has a brief but enthusiastic entry on TripAdvisor. I am particularly impressed, however, by the wisdom of a couple of features mentioned by Mr. O’Byrne:

The centre of the east wall has a quartrefoil window bearing the arms of the Dukes of Devonshire (who have owned adjacent Lismore Castle since it passed into their hands in the 18th century courtesy of a Boyle heiress) and their motto ‘Cavendo Tutus’ or Safety through Caution. As if testifying to these words, the fireplace immediately beneath the window is now blocked by a display case.


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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