At the New Criterion, whose founder, Hilton Kramer, the longtime former New York Times art critic passed away this morning, James Panero asks, What is a Museum? These days, all too often a museum is a sort of McDonald’s for Kultur and/or whatever pop art is in style that season*. But prior to the era of PC, museums once played a more vital role in a nation’s heritage:
During the Second World War, Kenneth Clark, the National Gallery’s young director, needed to get his institution’s collection of European paintings out from under the Luftwaffe’s bomb sites. As recounted in Suzanne Bosman’s 2008 book The National Gallery in Wartime, Clark was right about the threat to the collection in central London. Between October 1940 and April 1941, Nazi nighttime aerial bombardment struck The National Gallery nine times. On October 12, 1940, a German explosive leveled what had been the Raphael room.
At first Clark removed the Gallery’s holdings from Trafalgar Square to a discrete handful of universities, libraries, and castles scattered across Wales and Gloucestershire. When Germany inaugurated its Liverpool Blitz and Nazi bombers came within striking distance of these temporary homes, Clark prepared an even more drastic contingency. He was aware of the U-Boat menace. Nevertheless, he drew up plans to ship the permanent collection off the British Isles to the safety of Canada.
When Clark approached Winston Churchill about the move, the Prime Minister had a better idea. “Hide them in caves and cellars,” Churchill declared by telegram, “but not one picture shall leave this island.” Churchill’s remarks signaled the importance of The National Gallery and, in particular, its permanent collection to the identity of the nation. A work of art may exist in isolation, but a culture of art lives through museums and the collections these museums have maintained for the public. These permanent collections embody a museum’s identity even more than its buildings, its record of traveling shows, or any other aspect of its operations. Clark wanted to save the works of art. Churchill saw that Britain needed to preserve its culture of art as well. Sending away the art might spare the canvases, but it would mean disrupting the permanence of the permanent collection.
In 1941, Clark found a way to honor Churchill’s determination. First he reunited the scattered collection by retrofitting an abandoned slate mine into an air-conditioned storage facility. A year later, he began bringing the collection back to The National Gallery through the “Picture of the Month” initiative.
In January of that year, a letter published in the Times of London signed by a “picture-lover” wondered if there could be a way to bring the treasures of the permanent collection back on public view. “Because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days,” the writer suggested, “we need more than ever to see beautiful things.” Clark devised a way to bring up one masterpiece from the slate mine and exhibit it temporarily on Trafalgar Square. By night, and during daytime air raids, Clark moved the painting to a strong room in the basement. The first masterpiece to see the wartime walls was Margaretha de Geer, a work attributed to Rembrandt purchased by the Gallery in 1941 but, until then, never placed on public view. Even with severe limitations on travel, Clark calculated that as many visitors came to see that one painting each day as would have visited the entire National Gallery on a day in peacetime.
Compare that with the Smithsonian in the 1990s, which used the anniversary of America’s A-Bomb to announce its new role — manipulating American history as if it was Play-Doh.
* See also Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word for this trend in action. The title of Wolfe’s book, incidentally, was inspired by an observation Kramer made in the Times in the mid-’70s. Of course, that too was a very different Times.