Friday, 10 April 2015

Searching for the money tree — part four

Public domain photo by Daderot

Many museums allow photography with
certain restrictions (such as the use of a
flash). Others do not even allow people
to sketch the exhibits and can charge
exorbitant prices for the use of their own
In 1999, at the Bournemouth (UK) meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, I had just given a talk in which I spoke of the contributions to our knowledge of the past given by collectors and independent researchers. This was part of a session hosted by the Council for Independent Archaeology. After my talk, Neil Brodie, then at the McDonald Institute at Cambridge asked me if I thought that collectors would be willing to pay for research access to museum's collections (the vast majority of their holdings being in storage). The question was unexpected, and I don't even remember my reply. It seemed to me as if I had just offered to buy someone lunch, and they had asked me how much I would be willing to pay for that privilege.

The public's primary uses of museums and their exhibitions are as entertainment and social occasions, not so much as education. The collector, on the other hand, most often sees museums as a resource for their own studies. If a museum has to charge for admission because their funding cannot guarantee their survival, so be it. You might thus see a cash register at the entrance. You will always see one in the gift shop, of course. Other than that, perhaps one might be an exhibit, itself.

Art-Students and Copyists in the Louvre Gallery,
Paris. Winslow Homer, 1836-1910

“Begin by learning to draw and paint like the
old masters. After that, you can do as you like;
everyone will respect you.”
Salvador Dali

If you are an artist who copies a painting from an illustration, the result will not be a copy of the painting, but a copy of the illustration. It is not just the exact colours which are in the painting that will not be reproduced exactly, but the painting is not two dimensional, it is three dimensional: textures and relief in the paint, itself is often invisible in a photograph. I remember being amazed at a highlight on a the tip of a nose when I was looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait in a gallery: it was if a stray drip of paint of the exact shape and size needed had landed on the canvas by accident. The artist had obviously not adjusted the stroke. It was done alla prima in a single motion: the mark of a master. My wife (who was also an art teacher) used to say that many contemporary paintings are flat-looking because the artist was influenced only by photographs of paintings. I think that it is true to say that the Louvre's traditional practice of allowing copyists had a positive effect on future art.

Nearly twenty years ago, I wanted to do a web study of a series of Celtic gold coins, but there was one example (in the British Museum) for which I had only a photograph of one side. The article was to be about the way that the coins had been debased over time. It turned out (after looking at some of the actual coins) that my source data had been published with quite a number of typos and other mistakes and was of little use for my purposes, so it was never completed. When I requested the photo, I learned that it would cost me a total of 30 pounds for what I needed (This was before the British Museum allowed free use of their website photographs for non profit educational purposes). After explaining, on the phone, the problems of doing a freely accessible article on many varieties of a coinage when the cost would be so prohibitive, the keeper of coins kindly sent me a free polaroid of the coin I needed.

Weeks ago, I contacted the National Museum of Wales through their  "contact us" link about some metal analyses of some Coriosolite staters which had been published without any reference to their position in the chronology, and without any photographs by which I could identify such. I even told them that if such data was lacking in their catalogue, I would be happy to recatalogue them at no cost to them. Apart from an automated response saying that I would be contacted, they never even replied to refuse. A couple of years ago, I needed to obtain a Bulgarian paper on the use of spurs in ancient Thrace, following a recommendation from someone I knew in Bulgarian academia, I got the name of a major Bulgarian archaeologist who could help and I emailed him about obtaining a copy, as it was not apparently available in North America. I got no reply. If anyone can help me, it is:

“On the spurs’ development in Thrace, Macedonia and Illyria during the Early Hellenistic times”. – In: ПЪТЯТ. Сборник научни статии, посветени на живота и творчеството на д-р Георги Китов , Sofia 2003, 198-203

It is not vital, as most of what I needed is confirmed by Xenophon's treatise on horsemanship, but it would certainly add useful data.

Now, the Prehistoric Society has come to the aid of the private scholar by condemning the practice of some museums who charge the public for access to their collections. (complete letter) Good for them. It does not address the situation of just being ignored, but it is a start. Better a public collection than an "elite only" collection where only their friends can benefit through such economical barriers being put in place for everyone else who would wish to advance our knowledge of the past.

More in this series on Monday

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