January 3rd, 2009

I’m reading an entertaining insider memoir by Richard Fortey – Dry Store Room No.1 – on the British Natural History Museum, a vast pile in South Kensington. For a museum of this type, the research mission comes first – though this one does an admirable job in its more visible mission of public education. It has 70 million specimens, of which 28 million are insects. A quarter-million of these are the type specimens on which taxonomy is founded. The curators are expected to become the experts on some particular branch of the luxuriant tree of life.

Maintaining such institutions is simply a cultural obligation of a civilised society, a modest repayment of the debt we owe to science. But Fortey tells a nice anecdote illustrating the practical utility of the arcane knowledge they house.

In 1916, during one of the attempts to close the museums … the politician [the Speaker of the House of Commons] spoke in a disparaging manner of “deciphering hieroglyphs and cataloguing microlepidoptera”, the implication being that all real men were out there in the trenches doing useful stuff. He couldn’t have picked a worse example. Hermetically sealed tins of army biscuits destined for troops in all corners of the Empire proved to be full of maggots when they were opened. An entomologist at the Natural History Museum, John Durrant, was called in by the War Office – and the maggots proved to be the larvae of three species of flour moths, all belonging to the order Microlepidoptera.

(How many of yesterday’s Republican enemies of science could use the words hieroglyph and microlepidoptera correctly?)

The research value of museums that Mark points out (responding to Michael) is a function of size. You can’t do beetle taxonomy with a few dozen specimens; and you can’t do research on Caravaggio with one or two pictures. It looks to me as if most art museums are simply aping the manners of the necessarily few genuine research ones. The many little ones – the community colleges of art – should instead be working on a network model of art appreciation for the information age, encouraging the circulation of their holdings, cataloguing private as well as museum collections, and negotiating rules of access.

Another anecdote on donations, apropos of nothing very much. As you leave the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, having admired its Poussins, Rembrandts and Raeburns, you encounter a competent but ordinary late Victorian portrait of a self-satisfied small dog, a Border terrier or some such. An embarrassed notice explains that the picture is part of a high-quality collection donated a hundred years ago by a rich spinster: the condition being that the gallery could enjoy the Rubenses and whatnot only if the precious dog was on permanent and prominent display. I imagine that Miss McCroesus (I’ve forgotten her real name) could afford the very best legal craftsmanship from the firm of say Burns, Haggis and Reekie, Advocates to the Court of Session: quite good enough to see off a bunch of mere art historians for a century.

If other donors copied Miss McCroesus, there wouldn’t be so much art thesaurized in cellars.

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