Museums exude a peaceable calm. Voices are hushed as if in the presence of the sacred, everything is arranged with symmetry. All is decent and in order, and it seems that the collection sprang into existence from nothing, or that each item was a generous donation from the artist or the product of equally generous patronages.
There are some causes celebres that disturb the surface calm, of course. Lord Elgin’s marbles continue to be a point of controversy, but rarely does a museum encourage the question, How the hell did they get that? It’s a question the curators don’t necessarily want you to ask.
In his TLS review of The British as Art Collectors: From the Tudors to the Present, Angus Trumble complains that the book gives an altogether too schematic presentation of British art acquisition. It’s too abstract to say that art was collected by “royalty” and “aristocracy” and finally collections were made more “democratic”: “the history of collecting is really the history of individual shoppers, and, occasionally, partnerships or syndicates such as that of the coal and canal magnate the third Duke of Bridgewater, with budgets ranging from the merely large to the positively obscene, and not necessarily husbanded with corresponding degrees of wisdom. It is also the history of sweaty-palmed acquisitiveness, of rapacious greed, and also of processes of dissolution and loss – an invariably human story in which mostly anonymous crate-makers, removalists and shipping agents must figure prominently, while debt, disease, dispossession and death often interrupted grand schemes.”