It is reported this morning that certain leading supermarkets in Britain and Ireland have been selling “beef burgers” that contain pork and horsemeat.(1) Indeed, almost a third of one product tested had more in common with the racehorse Frankel than it did Daisy the cow.
It’s as if I’ve woken to discover something I’ve long suspected: we are all in fact characters in Dylan Thomas’ magnificent Under Milk Wood.(2)
This “play for voices” recounts a day in the life of the residents of Llareggub on the Welsh coast.(3)
One of the most memorable personalities is the town’s butcher, Benjamin Beynon. In his first appearance he is dressed “in butcher’s bloodied apron” with “a finger, not his own, in his mouth.”
His poor wife’s sleep has been disturbed by a dream that Mr Beynon has been persecuted “for selling owl meat, dogs’ eyes, manchop.” Not surprisingly, breakfast in the Beynon household is no easy affair, especially when the butcher announces that the fried liver they are eating is “pusscat”:
Mr Beynon then proceeds to list the savoury delights enjoyed by the family that week: “Monday, otter. Tuesday, shrews...”
Lily Smalls, who is also tucking into the breakfast, tries to placate her distraught mother by dismissing Mr Beynon as “the biggest liar in town.” But Mrs Beynon is having none of it:
Don’t you dare say that about Mr Beynon.
Everybody knows it, mum.
Mr Beynon never tells a lie. Do you, Ben?
No, Bess. And now I am going out after the corgies, with my little cleaver.
Oh, Lily, Lily!
Perhaps it would be wise to keep this little scene in mind next time you’re out shopping for tasty morsels in one of those posh supermarkets that “never tells a lie”. Who knows? Perhaps it’s pusscat on the shelves?
(1) “‘Horsemeat beefburgers’ investigated in UK and Ireland”, BBC News, 16/01/2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21038521
(2) Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood, London: Dent, 1995. The incident recounted above appears on pages 27-28.
(3) It is instructive to read the name of this fictional town backwards.
Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)
Full text of “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto”
“Swedish weapons with Burma’s army”. So reads a two-page article in today’s issue of the newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet.(1)
Alongside the text are photographs indicating that the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has come under attack from Burmese soldiers armed with Saab AB’s Carl Gustav 84mm Recoilless Rifle (“The best multi-purpose weapon there is”). We know this because at least one such armament plus ammunition were left behind when the state’s forces were driven into a retreat by their KIA opponents.
A serial number – 17248 – is clearly visible on the weapon pictured in Svenska Dagbladet. This should make it simple for Saab AB to confirm whether it was exported directly to Burma (in contravention of the 1996 EU export embargo) or, as is far more likely, that the arms found their way to Myanmar via one of Saab AB’s official customers (probably India or Thailand).
This mishap should come as no surprise given the sheer quantity of Swedish-made arms that are being exported all over the world. However, what makes this particular incident noteworthy is the manner in which Svenska Dagbladet reported the news. At the very same time that it broke the story, the newspaper’s editors allowed a 32-page advertising feature to be inserted into that day’s paper. Entitled, Rikets säkerhet (The Nation’s Security), it is produced by MDG Magazines and edited by Christer Fälldin. In his introductory message Fälldin informs Svenska Dagbladet’s readers that this addition to their daily paper tackles what he considers to be one of the most significant political challenges facing Sweden, namely defence. Fälldin has therefore sought to use the inaugural issue of Rikets säkerhet to address “many of the security and defence issues” that are current today. Alas, one such issue that is missing from this “newspaper” (sic) is any discussion of the legal or moral dimensions of the arms industry and the responsibilities that Sweden has as a world-leading exporter of military equipment.
The fact that the first issue of Rikets säkerhet was allowed to subsume Svenska Dagbladet’s report into the inherent risks involved in exporting arms is highly revealing. It exposes the extensive lobbying campaigns undertaken by powerful groups and individuals with vested interests in normalising and enhancing Sweden’s weapons industry. Rikets säkerhet represents a sophisticated attempt to scare the Swedish people by confronting them with amorphous threats and worries about the future. These dire warnings appear alongside advertisements from all manner of military-related organisations. They are in turn interspersed with associated “news” stories. This pseudo journalism is a thinly veiled attempt to convince Sweden’s political elite to continue to invest ever increasing sums in defence procurement and development.
All this is a far cry from the Nobel-prize and IKEA-meatball image of Sweden so adored by the international media. Beneath an oh-so-sweet Nordic façade there festers a far from savoury side to Sweden. Just ask the people of northern Burma.
(1) Bertil Lintner, “Svenska vapen hos Burmas armé”, Svenska Dagbladet, 11 December 2012, pp. 20-21.
After writing Manipulating Moderna Museet, I decided to revisit the museum for one last look at "Image over Image" – a temporary exhibition devoted to the work of Elaine Sturtevant.
This decision was in itself noteworthy. In one of the gallery spaces it’s possible to watch a video of “The Powerful Pull of Simulacra”. This is the title of the lecture Sturtevant gave in conjunction with the show.(1) In it she argues that “objects are out; image is the power”. But if this is the case, why do we need a museum of objects such as Moderna Museet? Indeed, what is the point of making a physical pilgrimage to see “Image over Image”?
The answer, I think, is all to do with “the powerful pull of simulacra”. I paid a repeat visit to “Image over Image” in order to savour being in the presence of what might be termed “genuine fakes”. This is a reference to one of the most striking moments of Sturtevant’s lecture: the part when she talks about “falsity presented as truth”.
That evocative phrase – “falsity presented as truth” – encapsulates “Image over Image”.
My moment of epiphany came as I genuflected in a room containing four works entitled Warhol Flowers. These are all dated 1990 – the same year of creation as those Brillo boxes that Pontus Hultén so very generously donated to Moderna Museet.
And then it struck me!
Moderna Museet is a secular temple. Its sacred spaces and canonical texts authenticate that which it displays.
Sturtevant’s “Image over Image” has allowed Moderna Museet to reclaim Pontus Hultén’s “fake” Brillo boxes. This in turn expunges their questionable provenance which threatened to besmirch the good name of Moderna Museet’s most illustrious leader.
Thanks to Sturtevant, it is now possible for the Brillo boxes’ falsity to be presented as truth. For is it not the case that, at the very same time that Sturtevant was propagating Warhol Flowers, Hultén was conjuring up a whole new suite of Brillo boxes? Endorsing the former has the effect of validating the latter.
And that’s how dead artist’s can produce genuine works of art long after their deaths.
If you still don’t get it, well, that’s probably just your “determination to be stupid” – to quote that true original, Elaine Sturtevant.(2)
(1) Elaine Sturtevant, “The Powerful Pull of Simulacra”, a talk given at the symposium, Beyond Cynicism: Political Forms of Opposition, Protest, and Provocation in Art, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 18th March 2012.
clone, copy, counterfeit,
fabrication, facsimile, fake, forgery,
imitation, impersonation, impression,
replica, reproduction, ringer,
Each of the words listed above mean roughly the same thing. Yet they are distinguised by subtle nuances, each of which leads to crucial differences in import.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word synonym as:
two or more words (in the same language) having the same general sense,
but possessing each of them meanings which are not shared by the other or others,
or having different shades of meaning or implications appropriate to different contexts.
The notion that meaning and implication are context dependent is highly significant. Take, for example, the following scenarios:
a) A forgery on sale for millions of pounds at an auction
b) a study hanging on the wall of an art gallery
The first of these two examples indicates a deliberate (often criminal) attempt to pass one thing off as another in order to undermine the art world and/or swindle both the potential buyer and the auction house.
A “study”, however, is an entirely different class of object:
An artistic production executed for the sake of acquiring skill or knowledge,
or to serve as a preparation for future work; a careful preliminary sketch for
a work of art, or (more usually) for some detail or portion of it;
an artist’s pictorial record of his observation of some object, incident,
or effect, or of something that occurs to his mind, intended for his
own guidance in his subsequent work.
The intention of the creator and the characterisation of the object determine in large part whether something is a worthless “forgery” or a valuable “study”.
The fascinating implications of all this have been apparent to people visiting Moderna Museet's “Image over Image” (17/03 – 26/08/2012).
At first glance this temporary exhibition looks like an impressive assemblage of iconic pieces by the likes of Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.
However, the person responsible for these works (and a few sex toys besides) is in fact the American artist, Elaine Sturtevant (born 1930).
A leaflet accompanying the show revels in this assemblage of playfully deceptive things that “defies description and instead frustrates, provokes and gathers strength in maintaining a perpetual stance of opposition.”
This characterisation is exactly the sort of on-the-edge radicalism to which Moderna Museet aspires. The Sturtevant show provides the institution with an opportunity to demonstrate that “Moderna Museet also has a history of confronting authenticity”. Cited in this regard are “the now internationally infamous Brillo boxes.”
The museum leaflet does not go into detail about why they are so infamous. Nor does it point out that they are currently exhibited in a gallery space immediately after the Sturtevant exhibition. The boxes in question are piled up in a corner alongside a label that reads:
Here, Moderna Museet emphatically does not deploy the Sturtevant exhibition to “confront” questions of authenticity or explore the nuances of words such as fabrication, facsimile, fake, forgery... Instead it lulls the vast majority of visitors into believing that the pile of boxes in the corner is a genuine artwork by Andy Warhol – produced three years after his death.
In truth these items were donated to Moderna Museet by their creator: its former director, Pontus Hultén. He used this institutional endorsement as leverage when selling other such boxes to private collectors at enormous personal profit.(1)
None of this is mentioned. Visitors are instead fed the normal fare of artspeak mystification enfolding both the temporary Sturtevant exhibition and the museum’s permanent collection. Of the latter, one room is themed: “Art as idea, language and process”. An introductory text panel by Cecilia Widenheim explains how the likes of “Marcel Broodthaers and Hans Haacke were among the first to criticise the art museum as an institution.” At the same time an artist such as “Öyvind Fahlström encouraged his viewers to ‘manipulate’ language.”
A superb example of language manipulation and the continuing need to critique an institution such as Moderna Museet lies immediately behind this vapid statement, namely those Brillo boxes by Andy Warhol (sic).
The means to highlight this are simple. All it would take is an action entirely in the spirit of Sturtevant’s “perpetual stance of opposition” and Moderna Museet’s proud “history of confronting authenticity” and Öyvind Fahlström’s encouragement for “viewers to ‘manipulate’ language.”
All one need do is quietly remove the “manipulative” label next to that pile of Brillo boxes and replace it with the following – what shall we call it? – facsimile, imitation, likeness, parody, transcription:
(1) See my chapter “Introducing Mr Moderna Museet: Pontus Hultén and Sweden’s Museum of Modern Art” in Kate Hill (ed.) Museums and Biographies: Stories, Objects, Identities (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012), pp. 29-44.
For a follow up to this story, see Falsity presented as truth (22/08/2012).
There has been a spate of scare stories recently about the "threat" to "our" heritage.
These often centre on fabulously valuable artworks owned by extremely wealthy people.
Occasionally the objects in question have been hanging quietly on the wall of a public art gallery - until, that is, the owner dies or runs out of cash.
A case in point is Picasso's Child with a Dove (1901). This is currently in limbo. It has been sold secretively to an unknown foreign buyer for an undisclosed sum (thought to be in the region of £50m).(1)
Unfortunately, the new owner will have to wait a while before getting their hands on it. This is because Britain's minister of culture has placed a temporary ban on its export in the hope that sufficient money can be raised to "save" this item "for the nation".
This is exactly what occurred just the other day in relation to a painting by Manet.(2) It cost the Ashmolean Museum £7.83m to "save" this integral piece of British culture from the rapacious hands of a dastardly foreigner.
But don't believe this rhetoric. Oh, and ignore the headline price and touching tales of little street urchins parting with their pennies to rescue this relic. It took upwards of £20m in tax breaks and donations from public bodies to ensure that national pride remained intact.
Yet this doesn't bode well for Picasso's little bird-loving child, does it? The art fund (sic) must surely have run out by now. So too have the superlatives and dramatic warnings from our media luvvies and museum moguls.
Indeed, their fighting funds were already seriously depleted after they chose to place £95m in the hands of the Duke of Sutherland - one of the richest men in the country.(3) This act of Robin Hood in reverse stopped the robber baron from flogging two paintings by Titian along with other trinkets he and his family had so generously loaned to the National Galleries of Scotland. And now the same museum is coming under "threat" again!
Soon we will have to watch as Picasso's little bird migrates to sunnier climes. The national heritage will be fatally winged by this terrible loss.
The consequences just don't bear thinking about...
This is just as well because, in truth, the only repercussions will be a slight dent to national pride plus a small gap on a museum wall. This can be filled by any number of artworks that are currently in store at the National Galleries of Scotland.
Deathly quiet will then return to this mausoleum of art...
Until, that is, we are panicked by the next siren call as yet another integral piece of Britain's (ha!) much-loved heritage comes under covetous foreign eyes.
Tell the world. Tell this to everyone, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.
'Cos you never know, you might just see a sweet bird by Picasso fly by...
(1) Anon, "Picasso's Child With A Dove in temporary export bar", BBC News, 17/08/12, http://www.bbc.co.uk./news/entertainment-arts-19283696; Maev Kennedy, "Picasso painting Child with a Dove barred from export", The Guardian, 17/08/12, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/aug/17/picasso-child-with-a-dove-painting.
(2) Stuart Burch, "Manet money", 08/08/2012, http://www.stuartburch.com/1/post/2012/08/manet-money.html.
(3) Stuart Burch, "Purloined for the nation", 03/04/12, http://www.stuartburch.com/1/post/2012/04/purloined-for-the-nation.html.
Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus by the French artist Édouard Manet (1832-83) has just been purchased for £7.83. This is far less than the sum that would have been achieved on the open market. The reason for this is because the British government refused to allow the painting to be sold to a foreign buyer.
Once-upon-a-time export bars were justified on the grounds of ensuring that a work of art was being "saved for the nation". Interestingly, the new owner of the portrait - the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford - has rephrased this dubious claim. Manet's work, we are assured, has been "saved for the public".
The museum is obviously keen to justify the expenditure on this portrait of a foreign person by a foreign artist.
The purchase will, we are told, "completely transform" the Ashmolean, helping to turn it into "a world-leading centre for the study of Impressionist and post Impressionist art."
Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus is, in other words, a commodity used as a means of competing with rival collections, both in the UK and abroad. However, the Ashmolean is only able to take part in the competition because this particular item of trade has not been allowed to reach its true "value". This is due to the fact that "aesthetic importance" and national pride are deemed, in this instance, to outweigh considerations of mere money. The result being that the Ashmolean was able to purchase the item in question for only 27% of its market value.
The artwork's worth on the open market "net of VAT" was £28,350,000. The enormous difference between this and the £7.83m paid by the Ashmolean represents a huge loss in taxation - at a time when Britain's economy is in a parlous state and when the government (it claims) is doing its utmost to tackle tax avoidance.
Mindful of this, the Ashmolean seeks to reassure us that it is "planning a full programme of educational activities, family workshops, and public events inspired by the painting."
But consider for a moment how many "educational activities" could be implemented for, say, £20 million (the difference between the "true" value of the artwork and the sum paid by the Ashmolean).
Fortunately we don't need to worry about this because money is very rarely talked about in our hallowed museums.
Manet's Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus is destined to merge seamlessly into the Ashmolean collection and be toured around various temporary exhibitions. A little label will list the charitable organisations and anonymous givers responsible for "saving it for the public". Yet the true cost of the commodity will be omitted.
Manet's money should not, however, be ignored.
Nor should one further, pressing issue. Just because Manet's painting is now "publicly" owned does not necessarily mean it will never again become a financial commodity. Alterations to the Museums Association's code of ethics mean that public museums in the UK are now able to "ethically" sell objects from their collections, albeit in exceptional circumstances.
This means that the same inventive logic and sleight of hand deployed to acquire Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus could be equally used to justify its future sale. As long, of course, that the money raised can be shown to be "for the benefit of the museum’s collection."
Where, however, will all this end? Might the change to the code of ethics be the first step towards the situation in the United States? San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for example, recently sold Bridle Path by the American artist, Edward Hopper in order to "benefit acquisitions." Perhaps one day the Ashmolean could do the same with the support of the Museums Association and the connivance of the British government? The museum would go on to make a tidy profit from its Manet - some of which could then be used to support future "educational activities". And so it goes on...
Money might well be a taboo subject in museums. But the issues raised by Édouard Manet's Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus should serve to remind us that museums have their own carefully constructed economy: one that is just as inventive and artful as the "real" economy with its clever strategies of quantitative easing dreamt up by bands of unethical bankers.
With this in mind, should the Ashmolean have been allowed to buy the painting under such circumstances?
The answer, I think, is no.
Instead, the British government should take a leaf out of the Museums Association's code of ethics. It ought to have allowed the export, on the condition that all monies raised in taxation from the sale were ring-fenced and used to fund "educational activities" in our museums. This would go some way to offsetting recent reductions in museum funding - with outreach and education programmes suffering disproportionately as a consequence.
This outcome would be far more ethical and more effective than the spurious tokenism used by the Ashmolean to disguise its glee at acquiring a work of art that only a fraction of the public will see or have any interest in.
"Donations help keep Manet in UK". So reads the title of an article about this matter in today's Financial Times.(1) The newspaper chooses to foreground the generosity of "1,048 people who donated sums which ranged from £1.50 to £10,000". Framing the story in this manner is a carefully considered ploy. It seeks to underline the sense of universal public support and popular approval for this deal.
These contributions are certainly laudable. But they pale into insignificance given that the bulk of the £7.83m came from "the Heritage Lottery Fund, which contributed £5.9m, and the Art Fund, which gave £850,000". The support of these official bodies plus the above-mentioned loss in tax revenue mean that the Ashmolean's latest acquisition must indeed have cost the state at least £20m.
This is, indeed, a conservative estimate. It is reported that 80% of the painting's value would have been levied in tax had it been sold on the open market.(2) It is the case, therefore, that the seller not only avoided a large tax bill; he or she also accrued more money by selling it to a UK museum for less than £8m as opposed to securing over £28m from a foreign buyer.
So, in a way, the FT is right: a very large donation has indeed kept Manet in the UK.
(1) Hannah Kuchler, "Donations help keep Manet in UK", Financial Times, 09/08/2012, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/4168b256-e174-11e1-92f5-00144feab49a.html.
(2) Maev Kennedy, "Ashmolean buys Manet's Mademoiselle Claus after raising £7.8m", The Guardian, 08/08/2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/aug/08/ashmolean-buys-manet-mademoiselle-claus.
Anon (2011) "Culture Minister defers export of stunning portrait by Edouard Manet", Department for Culture,
Media and Sport, 120/11, 08/12, http://www.culture.gov.uk/news/media_releases/8686.aspx
Anon (c.2011) "Last chance to keep Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus in the UK", Department for Culture,
Media and Sport, undated, accessed 08/09/2012 at, http://www.culture.gov.uk/news/news_stories/8685.aspx
Anon (c.2012) "Manet portrait saved for the public", undated, accessed 08/09/2012 at,
Atkinson, Rebecca (2012) "Ashmolean acquires threatened Manet portrait for £7.83m", Museums Association, 08/08,
Burch, Stuart (2012a) "Biting the hand that feeds", 22/03,
Burch, Stuart (2012b) "I scream, you scream, we all scream for The Scream", 20/03,
Burch, Stuart (2012c) "A Pearl of Dream Realm economics", 16/07,
Holmes, Charlotte (n.d.) "Sale of collections", Museums Association, accessed 08/09/2012 at,
Images to accompany my recent exhibition review of Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery in the county of Kent (Museums Journal, Issue 112 (05), pp. 54-57).
The museum is rightly grateful to that most capacious of collectors, Julius Brenchley (1816-73). This hoarder has been mentioned in an earlier blog posting, which also alluded to the bedroom antics of Maidstone Museum’s former curator, William Lightfoot. See “Brenchley's bedroom benefaction”.
The Duke of Sutherland is awfully rich.
And now he's even wealthier thanks to the £95m of largely public funds that were used to pay for two of his Titian paintings.
These masterpieces were produced in the 16th century by an Italian artist for a Spanish king.
It's amusing to think that they have now been "saved for the nation". But shouldn't this be "saved for the state"? What happens if Scotland votes for independence? Will the two "nations" get one each?
And when will all this nonsense end about saving things for nations?
How many paintings would remain in the National Gallery if everything had stayed in its home nation?
Source: Stuart Burch, "The national question", Letters to the Museums Journal (UK), issue 112/04, p. 22-23, 01/04/2012, http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/comment/01042012-letters
Sculptor: Joseph Durham ARA, FSA (1814-77)
JULIUS LUCIUS BRENCHLEY,
BORN at KINGSLEY HOUSE, MAIDSTONE, 30th NOVEMBER, 1816,
DIED at FOLKESTONE, 24th FEBRUARY, 1873.
After many years of travel, returning to England, he bought,
laid out, and transferred to the Maidstone Local Board the
adjacent Public Garden, and at his death bequeathed his
collections of Natural History, Books, and Works of Art to
Trustees, with an Endowment for their preservation and
exhibition in this Museum.
Victoria Tower, Houses of Parliament
Dr Liam Fox was until recently Great Britain's Secretary of State for Defence. He resigned on 14th October. The reason for this decision was set out in a terse letter he sent to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron:
"I mistakenly allowed the distinction between my personal interest and my government activities to become blurred. The consequences of this have become clearer in recent days. I am very sorry for this."(1)
Following the media investigations into this affair it is evident that this "blurring" of the personal and professional is nothing new. Moreover, the tenacity with which Dr Fox attempted to hold on to his job would suggest that he saw nothing wrong with using his elected position to further the ideological beliefs of his closest associates.
Many might consider this affair to be little more than a petty political squabble that pales into insignificance in comparison to the deaths of Lance Corporal Jonathan McKinlay and Marine David Fairbrother, both of whom were killed last month whilst on active duty in Afghanistan. Dr Fox referred to these two men whilst addressing parliament on 10th October. He deserves credit for honouring these soldiers. He also merits praise for recognising the importance of the political maelstrom which raged around him. "Serious issues have been raised here", declared Dr Fox to his fellow politicians.(2)
These "serious issues" are all to do with ethics. In his foreword to the Ministerial Code, David Cameron declared it was his government's "historic responsibility" to renew public confidence in politics and politicians. One way of achieving this was for his colleagues to abide by section 7.1 of the Ministerial Code:
"Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise,
between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise."(3)
Dr Fox fell well short of this edict due to his longstanding association with his pseudo advisor (sic) Adam Werritty and their links with the erstwhile "charity" Atlantic Bridge.
But what does any of this have to do with museums? Well, the Fox affair has placed a renewed spotlight on "The Seven Principles of Public Life". These are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.(4) These principles feature as an annex not only to the Ministerial Code but also to the Code of Ethics for Museums. The latter sets out the "ethical principles for all who work for or govern museums in the UK".
Compare what we know about Dr Fox's behaviour with the following from the Code of Ethics for Museums:
2.6 Avoid any private activity or pursuit of a personal interest that may conflict
or be perceived to conflict with the public interest.
2.17 Avoid being seen as representing the museum if speaking personally or
on behalf of outside organisations whose practices and purposes conflict with
that of the museum.
Now imagine if Dr Fox had been a museum director instead of a Secretary of State for Defence. Consider that a friend of the director had handed out business cards giving the impression that he was representing him and the museum. Then reflect on the implications of unidentified outside interests influencing the museum's collecting policy, exhibition programme or special events. And what if it transpired that associates of the director had links to the art and antiquities market – buying and selling items related to those shown at the museum.
Now ask yourself: would this individual be a fit person to run a museum?
(1) Cited in "Defence Secretary Liam Fox quits", BBC News, accessed 16/10/2011 at, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15311615.
(2) Hansard, 10th October 2011, Column 28, accessed 16/10/2011 at, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm111010/debtext/111010-0001.htm.
(3) Ministerial Code, May 2010, accessed 16/10/2011 at, http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/ministerial-code-may-2010.pdf.
(4) This stems from Standards in Public Life: the First Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (1995). See: www.public-standards.org.uk.
Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell's official report has concluded that "Dr Fox's actions clearly constitute a breach of the Ministerial Code" (see links below). For his part, Dr Fox acknowledged his shortcomings but sought to portray the "media frenzy" that had surrounded him as something that "should worry all of us." (1) Perhaps Dr Fox would still be in government without this so-called "frenzy"? Be that as it may, his attempt to castigate the media should not distract attention from those issues that remain. The principal unanswered question has been identified by the shadow leader of the House, Angela Eagle: "Why was the defence secretary allowed to treat the ministerial code as if it were an optional extra?" (2)
(1) Anon (2011) "Liam Fox attacks 'vindictiveness, even hatred' of media", BBC News, 19/10,
accessed 19/10/2011 at, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-15360827
Source: Cabinet Office
In July I posted a comment about the exhibition Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery (Burch 2011a). I have since had a chance to visit the museum and am now in a position to develop some of the ideas mentioned in my early blog posting.
Although the show in question fills only one small room, the ethical issues it raises are momentous. However, as with the concurrent exhibition Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500, the museum authorities have ensured that any contentious matters are only mentioned in the associated publication and not in the gallery (cf. Burch 2011b). The focus of the curators' acclaim rests instead on Eastlake as a pioneer whose influence is still felt to this day:
"His professional approach to the study and management of the Gallery's collection was ground-breaking and set an example that has been followed ever since."(1)
This is undoubtedly true in terms of the museum's collections. But can the same be said when it comes to its attitudes towards visitors?
"The pictures were Eastlake's first priority in everything he did at the National Gallery.
As a result the desire to accommodate visitors and their needs had second place and
definite limits" (Avery-Quash & Sheldon 2011: 174).
This, alas, seems to tally with the curatorial treatment of Eastlake. The "modest, scholarly and determined man" that emerges from the exhibition contrasts with the "wily" operator in Avery-Quash and Sheldon's associated biography (2011: 155). Yet even they are careful to avoid any real criticism. They note that Eastlake had collected privately since 1812, but conclude that:
"It was probably the case that Eastlake limited his own purchases to paintings which he
considered ineligible for the Gallery on grounds of size, state of preservation, or status of
the artist in question. Such an honourable demarcation would have been characteristic
of the man" (Avery-Quash & Sheldon 2011: 162).
This entirely positive stance allows the authors to bypass any awkward questions. Take, for example, Pollaiuolo's The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (1475, oil on poplar, 291.5 x 202.6 cm, inventory no. NG292). Eastlake's contemporary, John Morris Moore (1812-85) argued that the methods used to acquire it had violated Tuscan law. Avery-Quash and Sheldon mention this claim and Moore's belief that it has been "smuggled out, using bribery and corruption" before adding: "Moore's aspersions did not have any lasting consequence" (Avery-Quash & Sheldon 2011: 177). But were the accusations true?
Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery was a missed opportunity to provide some much-needed historical context to one of the most pressing issues facing museums today: the question of deaccessioning. Changes to the Code of Ethics for Museums now allow for "financially motivated disposal in exceptional circumstances" (2). This, not surprisingly, has given rise to many complex, ethical arguments. There is an urgent need for an informed debate that draws on past practice. A case in point concerns the National Gallery's decision in 1857 to sell thirty-seven paintings from the former Krüger collection. Avery-Quash and Sheldon (2011: 160) remark that "[t]his act is considered unfortunate today, given that important works from this history of German art were irreparably broken up." Why was this affair ignored in the Eastlake exhibition? And why was there no mention of the 1856 "Act to extend the Powers of the Trustees and Director of the National Gallery, and to authorize the Sale of Works of Art belonging to the Public"? This legislation was enacted in response to sellers who only agreed to part with an entire collection of artworks rather than just the specific painting that Eastlake was so eager to acquire. Hence the National Gallery's decision to sell works at Christie's auction house on 14 February 1857. How many current museum professionals are aware of this precedent?
One positive thing about the Eastlake exhibition is that it does occasionally touch upon that most un-museum of subjects: money. We learn, for instance, that Eastlake's most expensive acquisition was the £13,650 spent on Paolo Veronese's The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565-7, oil on canvas, 236.2 x 474.9 cm, inventory no. NG294). Of course, the museum does not see fit to include this figure among the "key facts" about the painting (3). And, whilst visitors to the Eastlake exhibition are given the National Gallery's acquisition budget for 1855 (£10,000), they are not told what the figure is today. Why were the two sums not set side-by-side, thus enabling visitors to compare today's situation with that of 156 years ago?
The answer is because, then as now, "visitors and their needs" take "second place" within very "definite limits". Sir Charles Eastlake can therefore rest easy: his legacy at the National Gallery is indeed secure.
(1) Cited from the interpretation panel "Eastlake's legacy at the National Gallery".
(2) See "Sale of collections", accessed 09/10/2011 at, http://www.museumsassociation.org/collections/sale-of-collections.
(3) "Key facts", accessed 09/10/2011 at, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/paolo-veronese-the-family-of-darius-before-alexander/*/key-facts.
Avery-Quash, Susanna & Julie Sheldon (2011) Art for the Nation: The Eastlakes and the Victorian Art World
(London: National Gallery Company)
Burch, Stuart (2011a) "Museum ethics – then and now", 24/07, accessed 09/10/2011 at,
Burch, Stuart (2011b) "Deception by Design", 17/09, accessed 09/10/2011 at,
The association between museums and "sacred" or "consecrated" places has long been understood (Elliott 2002). This overlap has now been rendered complete by the National Gallery's temporary exhibition Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500 (6 July – 2 October 2011). One of its rooms recreates the interior of a Tuscan church from around 1500 complete with candlesticks and candle light, altar crucifix and religious music.
The exhibition explores altarpieces - their construction, commission and construal. It also tackles "the business of altarpiece design". It has far less to say about the business of altarpiece acquisition.
This silence is achieved by a careful process of exclusion, as is apparent in the room entitled "Dislocation". It is introduced as follows:
The objects in this room are all fragments of different altarpieces. Some altarpieces were
modified or updated quite early in their history to appeal to the prevailing tastes of the time.
The majority, however, were dismantled following the suppression of religious institutions
across Italy during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Altarpieces that were not directly transferred to art galleries in Italy appeared on the art market,
encouraging the attention of scholars and collectors. This room examines the various methods
used by art historians, conservators and scientists to reconstruct and recontextualize these
This seemingly unremarkable statement of facts neglects to mention something that is raised in the accompanying catalogue. The chapter "Dislocation, dismembering and dismantling" begins with a reproduction of Niccolò di Liberatore's Christ on the Cross, and Other Scenes (1487). It was purchased by the National Gallery in 1881. Rumours that it had been stolen prior to its acquisition were "somewhat mysteriously" dropped (Nethersole 2011: 93). This example is used to illustrate "the potentially dubious machinations that sometimes characterised the sale of Italian pictures in the nineteenth century." The catalogue's author continues: "The art market responded to the demand for Italian "primitives" by ruthlessly hacking them up, extracting saleable elements and discarding the rest" (Nethersole 2011: 93).
So, instead of a backdrop of sacred music, might it not be more appropriate if the National Gallery's hallowed halls reverberated to the sound of saws cutting wood?
How do we account for the difference between the interpretation in the gallery and in the book? Well, opting to overlook the "dubious machinations" of the art market minimises the risk of gallery-goers asking awkward questions. Any critical reactions arise at a safe distance: namely when the interested visitor sits down at home to flick through the glossy new addition to their library.
Is this deception by interpretive design acceptable for a museum that markets itself under the mantra: "EXPLORE & REFLECT"? It is questionable whether the dissimulation evident in Devotion by Design accords with the museum's own Research code of conduct: "Good conduct in the context of research practice at the Gallery includes... [a]pplying the highest possible standards of integrity and professionalism, including observing relevant legal and ethical requirements."(1)
By marginalising legal and ethical questions the museum has presumably sought to safeguard the sacred aura of the museum. The realisation that the National Gallery has played a decidedly dubious role in the dislocation, dismembering and dismantling of religious artefacts is disturbing. But that should not make it a taboo topic for a museum visit.
The museum's curators clearly need to worship at the altar of the Church of Earthalujah and heed the words of the Rev Billy: "Blessed are you who disturb the customers, for you might be loving your neighbor."
The National Gallery ought to reward its visitors with just such disturbing love.
(1) National Gallery Code of Practice and Good Conduct in Research, accessed 17/09/2011 at, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/research/research-code-of-conduct
Elliott, Mark (2002) "Magic House: Sacred Space and Profane Behaviour in the Indian Museum, Calcutta",
World Art Symposium, School of World Art Studies and Museology at the University of East Anglia,
19/01, accessed 17/09/2011 at, http://www.uea.ac.uk/~t013/Sacred%20Places/Magic_house.htm
Nethersole, Scott (2011) Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500, London, National Gallery Company
Illicit trade is a global threat to cultural heritage. It is also closely linked to other criminal activities such as people and drugs trafficking plus the illegal trade in arms. A case in point is the arrest in Serbia of Goran Hadžić, a man suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia. He was apprehended in July 2011 thanks to his botched attempt to sell a painting purported to be by the Italian artist, Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). (See Tanner, Adam & Aleksandar Vasovic (2011) "Stolen art held clue to Serbia war crimes arrest", Reuters, 20/07, accessed 20/07/2011 at, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/20/us-finearts-serbia-modigliani-idUSTRE76J41920110720.)
This affair reminds us that museums must at all times conduct themselves in an ethical manner. ICOM's Code of Ethics for Museums (2006) explains why:
4.5 Display of Unprovenanced Material
Museums should avoid displaying or otherwise using material of questionable origin or lacking provenance. They should be
aware that such displays or usage can be seen to condone and contribute to the illicit trade in cultural property.
- available at: http://archives.icom.museum/ethics.html
But more than that, in accepting items of questionable provenance, museums would be helping the likes of Goran Hadžić to evade justice.
Para, jämsides med.
En annan sort.
Bevingaren, 1980: 90
Even a parasite like me should be permitted to feed at the banquet of knowledge
I once posted comments as Bevingaren at guardian.co.uk
Note All parasitoids are parasites, but not all parasites are parasitoids
Parasitoid "A parasite that always ultimately destroys its host" (Oxford English Dictionary)
I live off you
And you live off me
And the whole world
Lives off everybody
See we gotta be exploited
By somebody, by somebody, by somebody
<I live off you>
Germ Free Adolescents
is a short step.
The word is
now a virus.