THE FATE OF SCULPTURES AT: 1) The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2) The British Museum; 3) The National Museum of Kolkata; 4) The Academy of Art in Perugia; And, the Burrell Collection next?
STOP PRESS: On Tuesday January 21st the Burrell Collection (Lending and Borrowing) (Scotland) was passed in the Scottish Parliament without a vote. Barely half a dozen MSPs attended. They unanimously supported the Bill (although one called for some published account of the proposed £45m development plan). There is no minimum number of votes necessary for a bill to gain approval.
Neil MacGregor and Thomas Campbell, the directors respectively of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will now be able to make arrangements for the first two stops in the planned international tour of plum Burrell works to help raise £45m to repair and refurbish the Burrell Collection building, the roof of which has been left leaking for decades. The desultory non-debate took place during an international spate of damaged sculptures.
Accident at Perugia
As we reported on 14 October 2013, when Canova’s sculpture The Killing of Priam was being detached from the wall of the Academy of Art in Perugia to be shipped to an exhibition at Assisi, just 24 kilometres away, it was dropped and smashed beyond repair (as Tomaso Montanari had recently disclosed). The removal operation was headed by the shipping company Alessandro Maggi di Pietrasanta.
Accident at Kolkata
On 14 January this year, the Art Newspaper reported another catastrophic accident, this time at the National Museum of Kolkata where a rare 2,000 years old carved lion was dropped and smashed when being moved within the museum during renovation (see Figs. 1 and 2). The Art Newspaper was quick to claim that the accident “highlighted a shocking lack of professional procedures for handling antiquities at Indian museums” but many major well-resourced and staffed western museums have proved accident-prone in their treatment of sculptures in recent years – and in one respect, as discussed below, the Kolkata museum procedures would seem superior.
Accidents at the British Museum
Consider first the record of the British Museum. In the 2007 book “The Museum: Behind the scenes at the British Museum” (written to accompany a fawning ten-part BBC television series), it is said that:
“Sending precious ancient objects around the world is all very well in theory, but in reality it’s a massive operation fraught with practical and official difficulties. Before any loan is considered, the British Museum has to be certain that the destination museum can provide the right conditions and security. ‘We can only lend responsibly’, says Neil MacGregor. ‘The museums we’re sending to have to be able to ensure their safety. Beijing now has a museum that can accept international loans: it’s new, and it reaches international standards, and it’s very pleasing that they chose to open it with an exhibition of British Museum treasures. Shanghai, being a more cosmopolitan city, has had a good museum for a long time – and there are places opening up in the Chinese provinces that we’ll be happy to work with. It’s easier and safer to transport these big, valuable objects now but it’s just as important to be certain that they’ll be safe at the other end.’”
With regard to safety, as we reported on 6-8 September, when, in 2006, the British Museum packed the peerless and desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings (see Figs. 8 and 9) and sent them all by lorry to Luxembourg from where they were flown to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 11 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s doorways were too low. No one, it seems, had thought to measure either the doors or the packing cases.
It was further discovered that the host museum’s lifts were inadequate. In consequence, the crated carvings had to be “rolled in through the front door”. This meant “that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs. Even then we had to unpack three of the modules to get a bit more clearance”, said the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darrel Day, in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes (see “The Museum”, BBC2, 2007).
When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” The injuries have not been identified and no photographs of them have been published. When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they in turn would not pass through the door of the reading room – even when the door’s frame was removed.
Accidents at the Metropolitan Museum
As for the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Burrell Trustees will have further grounds for qualms when considering authorisation of loan requests to that venue. In 2008 an Andrea della Robbia terra cotta, St. Michael the Archangel, fell from the walls and smashed (see Fig. 4). So far as we know, it has not yet been repaired and returned to view.
Six years earlier, in 2002, a much larger and art historically more important sculpture, Tullio Lombardo’s life-sized carved marble Adam (Fig. 6) – the first monumental, classically inspired nude of the Renaissance – also fell to the ground and smashed into many pieces (see Fig. 7). It did so when its stand collapsed. We must assume that like the Andrea della Robbia, this work, too, has still not been repaired and returned to the gallery. On 28 January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times that neither of the Met’s smashed Renaissance sculptures were back on view (“Despite Assurances, Met Finds Artworks Aren’t restored Overnight”). The Museum’s press office has not responded to either of our inquiries last week on the present condition and whereabouts of the two Renaissance sculptures. At the time of its collapse in 2002, the Met said that the Lombardo would be back on display in two years time. Fortunately, both of these accidents occurred after hours and when no visitors were present. In both cases no museum staff witnessed the accidents.
Unlike the Kolkata Museum (and the National Gallery in London, which supplied ArtWatch with photographs of the painted panel by Beccafumi which was dropped and smashed when being dismounted from a temporary exhibition within the gallery), the Met permitted no photographs to be taken of the Tullio Lombardo sculpture, which witnesses reported to have been smashed into hundreds of pieces.
The Met defends both that original suppression of evidence and the continuing secrecy surrounding the two restorations. In January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported that the unusual seclusion in which the Lombardo restoration was being carried out had generated suspicions that the sculpture is beyond repair. This lack of institutional transparency was defended by the chairman of the museum’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, Ian Wardropper, on the grounds that seeing images of broken sculptures would be “detrimental to museumgoers’ ability to appreciate such pieces once repaired”. Mr Wardropper suggested on that occasion that the work was probably three years from re-emerging and he attributed the increasing length of time to an original decision to restore the statue “in the most meticulous and durable way possible.”
The Met believes itself to have been hampered in its goal, Mr Kennedy reported, because “few pristine life-size museum marbles like the Adam have ever shattered, so reliable technical information about restoring one is limited.” Nonetheless, Mr Wardropper was bullish about the significance of the protracted restoration. A large insurance pay-out had been made (the size of which the Met also declines to disclose), and it was decided to use this money for a monumental restoration research project on the best means of repairing smashed carvings.
It has been promised that at the restoration’s end, the repaired and cleaned work will be unveiled as the centrepiece of a special exhibition to be housed in a new gallery dedicated to the Venetian Renaissance. That the work itself is of great art historical and artistic significance is not in dispute (see comments at Fig. 6). At the same time, consideration might be given to the artful propagandistic means by which museums can contrive to present the eventual recovery of needlessly or carelessly lost or damaged works as Public Relations Triumphs – see “Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”.
In January 2010 the Met’s then new director, Thomas P. Campbell, said that after initial doubts he fully supported the lengthy restoration: “The sculpture is 500 years old. Whether it’s off display for eight years rather than five is insignificant.” The sculpture is now at least 521 years old and has been off display for twelve years. We are told that research carried out on the safest means of pinning fragments of marble together has established that the most commonly used material – stainless steel – has the great disadvantage of having greatly more tensile strength than the marble itself. It is not clear why this “discovery” required such lengthy and expensive research: it has long been recognised that the iron pins used to re-assemble the Parthenon during its 1930s restoration had resulted in fractures of the marble, either as a result of earth tremors or the expansion of the iron through rusting (the restorers had not followed the ancient Greek practice of encasing the iron in lead to prevent corrosion). The consequence of using steel (or titanium, as is now being used on the Parthenon) for pinning today, is that when sculptures are next dropped or severely shaken, the pins can shatter the marble from within, introducing many more and greatly more serious injuries. It should, therefore, go without saying that moving stone works that have been repaired with metal pins inescapably compounds the risks.
Even if the vote in the Scottish Parliament should go in favour of Glasgow Life’s attempt to overturn Burrell’s wishes and binding instructions against foreign travels, the trustees of his collection might nonetheless, when considering authorising a loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reflect on the fact that the Lombardo sculpture was smashed only because (as we had reported in the ArtWatch UK Journal 17 in 2002) it had been removed in 2000 from the cherry-wood pedestal on which it had (presumably) stood since its 1936 acquisition by the Met, and placed on a modern conservation-standard base and shallow plinth constructed with MDO (Medium Density Overlay Plywood). At that time, the then director, Philippe de Montebello, promised that, after an anticipated two years restoration, “The figure will stand again on a solid pedestal and, frankly, only the cognoscenti will know.” A dozen years on, that claim has yet to be tested. What can be said, is that the sculptures at the Burrell Collection presently stand securely on wonderfully stable stone bases (see Figs. 11 and 12) and, as ArtWatch pointed out to the Scottish Parliamentary hearing on September 19th, they would remain safely so if “as we most strongly urge, the Parliament rejects the request to overturn Burrell’s still perfectly well-founded prohibition on foreign travels for works in collection.”
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