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  • The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and Early-19th-Century Europe ed. by Carole Paul
  • Patrick Norris
Carole Paul, ed., The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and Early-19th-Century Europe (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012). Pp. 346. $50.00.

The twelve essays in Carole Paul’s anthology, The First Modern Museums of Art, tell the story of how princely private collections became institutionalized as public museums in major European cities between 1734 and 1836. These new institutions expressed civic pride, embodied the Enlightenment, and responded to the development of the Grand Tour, that fashionable study year abroad that became a rite of passage for the sons and daughters of the international aristocracy.

The Grand Tour typically began in Rome, and trailed across Europe from the treasures of the Papacy to collections housed in palaces and government offices adaptively reused as exhibition spaces for classical antiquities and Italian Renaissance paintings. The First Modern Museums of Art is itself structured chronologically as a Grand Tour. Its twelve chapters begin, too, in the Eternal City and lead to London, on to Florence, back to Rome, then to Dresden, Dusseldorf, and Kassel, Vienna, Stockholm, Paris, Madrid, and back to London, before ending in Berlin and Munich.

An international array of distinguished art historians fittingly tells this international story. Their twelve chapters explore the birth and early development of seventeen major European museums. Contributors and institutions surveyed are Carole Paul, Capitoline Museum; Robert G. W. Anderson, British Museum; Paula Findlen, Uffizi Gallery; Jeffrey Collins, Museo Pio-Clementino; Tristan Weddigen, Galleries of Dresden, Dusseldorf, and Kassel; Michael Yonan, Kunsthistorisches Museum and Belvedere Museum; Magnus Olausson and Solfrid Soderlind, Nationalmuseum and Royal Museum; Andrew McClelland, Musée du Louvre; Andrew Schultz, Museo Nacional del Prado; Brandon Taylor, National Gallery; Thomas W. Gaehtgens, Altes Museum; and Adrian Von Buttlar and Benedicte Savoy, Glyptothek and Alte Pinakothek.

Every anthology, it has been said, is both a collection and an assertion. The First Modern Museums of Art makes the case for a new history of museums by placing their origins in the eighteenth rather than the nineteenth century. This collection, as editor Carole Paul points out, is also the first scholarly reappraisal of European museum history since Germain Bazin’s The Museum Age (1967). Paul’s preface establishes the context as she and the other contributing scholars detail the transformation of private collections into public institutions. Each chapter focuses on the particular invention of a new museum. Similar patterns of development are shown unfolding in city after city across the continent.

First, leading families transferred inherited holdings to the national or regional governments “for the use of the public, and to attract the curiosity of foreigners,” in the words of the Medici Family Pact (1737) (80). Public accessibility and cultural tourism provided the rationale for these acts of public policy making from nation to nation over the next hundred years. Next, palaces and civic buildings were repurposed as museum galleries under the direction of civil servants, antiquarians, artists, and architects. Standards for what was to be collected and how it was to be displayed were established early. Exhibition designs were copied from museum to museum; plans for the Louvre’s grand galleries, for [End Page 87] example, specify natural light from above, subdued architectural embellishments, and colored wall surfaces to enhance old master paintings (218). Guided tours and guide books soon followed, written, in the words of a Berlin curator, “to first delight, then instruct” visitors (286). An international competition arose among the principal cites of Europe over the reputation and quality of their new museums. The development of cultural tourism, in turn, fostered an international market for masterworks among Grand Tourists.

In the early nineteenth century, the target audience was broadened beyond elites to include the general public. Regular public hours were imposed upon reluctant staffs that plainly preferred an elite clientele. Witness this early nineteenth-century exchange between a committee of Parliament and the director of the British Museum: “Do you think there would be any difficulty in the summer months in opening the Museum from nine o...


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