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Learning from the Wallace Collection

29 May 2018

Editor’s letter from June 2018 issue of Apollo.

Wouldn’t a museum seem stale if we knew everything about its collection? One of the endeavours of curators is to help us know more about the objects in their care – whether through their own research, or an openness to the scholarship of others, or by creating displays that make room for new ways of seeing. That can mean conveying new information about, or interpretations of, how an object was made, its condition, or what it signifies, or realising and publicising difficult truths about provenance, in a way that we now rightly expect museums to.

Fundamental to the idea of the museum is the premise that such quests are inexhaustible and there will always be more to discover; we conserve objects not only because of what they have meant in the past, but because we are convinced that they may tell us other, as yet unguessed-at stories in the future. That’s a slightly ponderous way of saying that museum collections are exciting in part because of what we don’t know about them, and – with apologies to Donald Rumsfeld – because of what we know we don’t know.

One of the privileges of my job is meeting curators who are in the process of finding things out – for whom ignorance is bliss, as it were, since recognising its existence is a stepping stone to knowledge. Recent visits to the Wallace Collection in London, for example, have brought the diversion of being steered through the galleries by Xavier Bray, the museum’s director since 2016, towards otherwise easily overlooked objects that have piqued his curiosity, from an ivory snuff grater to a pair of flamboyantly decorated pistols.

Some of those objects feature in an exhibition on Sir Richard Wallace that opens there this month (‘Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector’; 20 June–6 January 2019). Although his name may grace the museum at Hertford House, Wallace has been somewhat neglected for his role in developing the collection that it shelters. As Susan Moore writes in the June issue of Apollo, Wallace was an enigmatic figure with eclectic taste, whose acquisitions of everything from princely armour to Chinese ceremonial objects do much to make the museum, notwithstanding its first-rate picture collection, such a strange and surprising place.

The Great Gallery at the Wallace Collection, London. Courtesy the Wallace Collection

This is the first display in a new gallery at the Wallace Collection, which will triple the space available for temporary exhibitions. As with the Frick Collection in New York, the grand domestic setting of the Wallace is at once a great draw and a drawback, since it imposes restrictions on the development of modern museum facilities, both front and back of house. But constraints encourage creative solutions, as the Frick has found with the recent revision of its extension plans. On a smaller scale, this Wallace Collection redevelopment makes sense of prior limitations, with display space salvaged pragmatically out of a relocated photography studio and an old storage area.

A larger exhibition gallery at the Wallace Collection makes sense in other ways, too. It is fitting that the inaugural show focuses on the museum’s holdings, for it is to be hoped that a more extensive programme of temporary exhibitions will bring more visitors, who will also be minded to dwell on the permanent displays. The Wallace Collection is among the national museums, meaning that it is – quite rightly – free to all visitors. But unlike most of its peers in that category, it has not been able to offer a fully fledged exhibition programme that would increase its allure to repeat visitors (although there are many of those) or widen its appeal to those who have never visited (and no doubt it misses out on revenues as a result). The second show, which opens in 2019, will be a paid exhibition exploring how Henry Moore took inspiration from the arms and armour collection at the museum.

The Wallace is a closed collection, insofar as the strict terms of its bequest require that objects are never loaned from it and that acquisitions cannot be made. Perhaps they are too restrictive for a national museum in the 21st century… but that is a discussion for another occasion. Either way, in a more important sense, the collection is not closed at all: it is open to discovery, as museums should be.

From the June 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.