Collecting Treasures

Museum. (noun)
An institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value. Also: a place where objects are exhibited.

Collection. (noun)
The act or process of getting things from different places and bringing them together. Also: a group of interesting or beautiful objects brought together in order to show or study them.

– The Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Staircase at the Château de Versailles

The contemporary concept of what an art museum is and what it represents is somewhat bemusing. Most are public institutions, and one mission of many modern museums is to provide a way by which anyone can experience the history and culture of human civilization. In a collection of galleries, art that spans millennia and kilometers can be viewed, studied, and pondered in a single visit. Neither space nor time is a limitation for the appreciation of art. If this implies accessibility, however, then almost everything else about an art museum might suggest otherwise. The featured objects are often the only ones in existence in the whole world, being rare relics of an ancient empire or highly regarded works by masters of the arts; they invite curious, hungry gazes while inciting fears that an improper touch or unsuitable whiff of air will damage them forever. A glance at an object’s placard reveals when the piece was made (useful for contextualizing techniques and motifs, but also helpful for instilling a bewilderment at just how old some of the objects are) and, usually, the funds that made the purchase of the object possible (ranging from one name to hundreds, reminding the viewer just how many wealthy donors were necessary to foot the bill). Add to this the hushed ambience of whispers and silenced mobile phones, and it is no surprise that the visitor can get the uncomfortable feeling that he or she doesn’t quite belong inside.

The word “museum” originates from the Latin word, museum, which in turn derives from the Greek word, mouseion. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, mouseion can be translated to “Seat of the Muses.” In Greek mythology, the Muses are a group of goddess sisters who, amongst other things, preside over epic and heroic poetry, lyrical and love poetry, history, music, tragedy, dancing, comedy, and astronomy. Often, the muses were associated with poets and philosophers, who dabbled in many of these arts. As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it, the mouseion was “a place for the study of special arts and sciences,” intended for philosophical contemplation and discussion.

Ceiling at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

While today’s museums continue to enhance the study of the liberal arts and sciences, the English definition of the word has a very different meaning. When the word was adapted into the English language (a fairly recent event, occurring in the past few centuries), museum simply referred to a collection. These collections were often private, belonging to wealthy individuals who had access to the vast resources required to amass such objects of desirability and value, if not curiosity. However, these rich patrons were hardly the first to appreciate the value of a beautiful collection. The act of collecting material items dates far back in human history, long before the modern concept of a museum was born.

A display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In the ancient empires of Greece and Rome, burial sites housed extensive collections of both aesthetic and practical objects. In the earliest years, the most important figures in society were honored in visible burial chambers above ground. Particularly for the wealthy, the walls of these chambers enclosed objects of all kinds, from the practical to the purely decorative. Urns and vessels that had been used during one’s lifetime, painted or carved with symbols and motifs, would sit among funerary garlands and wreaths, shaped from delicate gold leaf to adorn the brow of the recently deceased. Swords and armor and even the harnesses a man had used on his prized horses would join collections of jewelry, some depicting mythical creatures or beings who were believed to guide the deceased or protect them from supernatural harm. Rulers commissioned piece upon piece of bronze cast, stone carving, or precious metal plate, with the intention that the elaborate collection would join them in death and provide a colorful narrative and tribute to his accomplishments in life. Only as town expanded to metropolis, and population grew, did space constraints limit the size of these chambers, such that ornate chambers gave way to cremation and the much smaller funerary urn.

Staircase at the Musée du Louvre in Paris
Hallway at the Musée du Louvre in Paris

Just as the objects buried with the deceased were meant to tell a story, collections of art in the following centuries were also intended to communicate particular messages, especially when the pieces were displayed in the public realm. During the late Roman Empire, emperors installed massive monuments along well-traveled roads, carved with dozens of dynamic scenes reliving their victories in distant lands and depicting the approval of the gods. In the Persian Empires, collections of detailed, brilliantly decorated wall tiles were displayed on doorways and interior walls, particularly in religious buildings. Natural motifs of flora and fauna were joined by poetic inscriptions along the tiles’ borders. In Middle Age Europe, murals and paintings lined the walls of religious institutions, illustrating highly stylized scenes from religious stories and making heavy use of symbolism. Such collections of then-contemporary art pieces, often by the church or state, were meant to be as aesthetically pleasing as they were informative to the nation’s citizens.

A doorway in the Château de Versailles

Collections of objects began to cross geographical boundaries when transnational trade was established in the 1500’s. As immense ships navigated the seas and caravan routes stretched across mountains and plains, local wares and goods found eager new markets. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese ceramics and porcelains became coveted in Dutch, French, and German households, just as they were in Chinese, Korean and Japanese royal courts, due to the exacting detail and lustrous colors of their delightful decorations, as well as the purity and transparency of the porcelain itself. As these pieces made their way into European households, Dutch, French, and German craftsmen began experimenting with new techniques to replicate the clarity and brilliance of Asian porcelains. Chinese and Japanese motifs were widely adapted in European-made goods; to a lesser extent, European preferences also trickled back to influence the workshops in Asia. As a result, collections of dishware by members of Europe’s upper class consisted of a rich amalgam of cultural influences. Such collections had the effect of indicating the collector’s ability to appreciate the aesthetically pleasing, as well as emphasizing his or her worldly knowledge and sophistication.

A room at the Château de Versailles

Collections of exotic art in this era of trade far surpassed the realm of dishware. Lacquered boxes from China, inlaid with precious stones and metals, joined delicately painted Japanese silk screens in English drawing rooms. American woodworkers incorporated Asian motifs into the panels and decorative carvings of chairs and dressers, and European textile makers integrated Asian patterns and silhouettes into tapestries and garments. This cultural conversation reached such a degree that it produced the terms chinoiserie and japonisme, referring to the European interpretation of Chinese and Japanese art, respectively.

A door at the Château de Versailles

Simultaneously, the concept of collecting objects of old (or recreating them, as the case may be) grew in popularity. During the Renaissance and the Romantic era, ancient Greek and Roman ideals of beauty were re-adopted in Europe, particularly in Italy. Collectors obtained antique coins and jewelry made from precious and semi-precious metals and stones, and engraved with the symbols and motifs of Greek and Roman mythology. Where antiques could not be obtained, commissions flourished for 15th and 16th century artists to carve statues, paint scenes, and employ architectural elements that emulated those of the Antique periods. The collector not only valued art from across the map, but also across time.

The entry to the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

These collections of rare and exotic goods remained, for a time, in the private domain. Such objects were meant for appreciation by those who could afford them—that is, the aristocracy and nobility, and perhaps the top tiers of the middle classes. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the concept that such collections should be made available to the public became prevalent in the 18th century, in order to indulge scholarly and public appreciation. Since then, hundreds of art museums have been erected in almost every major city in the world, containing displays ranging from Neolithic wall panels to contemporary structures of recycled plastic.

At the heart of any art collection is the requirement for interpretation, particularly for a collection containing historical objects that have been placed in a newer, modern context. The isolation of an object of art inherently creates a barrier to understanding its significance or purpose. However, the lack of context also provides the opportunity for the casual observer to contemplate and imagine the story behind each object, informed by his or her unique life experiences and points of view. Who made it? Why? Who owned it? And who has seen it before, in the decades or centuries of its existence? To contemplate this last question is to put ourselves in the mindset of others, and to try to appreciate the value of an object of art while standing in a different pair of shoes and looking out through another person’s eyes.

The courtyard at the Harvard Art Museums

Imagine, for a moment, an early American painting, a family portrait. Fix it in one spot in your mind, and imagine the setting changing over time. I can see it hanging on a looming wall, framed by a doorway in a stately house, with the children dashing past as they grow up and guests briefly pausing to admire the portrait before continuing through the house. I can see it moving to a wall of a different house, perhaps covered in wallpaper, and then to another room, where another generation of the family resides, and the children gaze curiously at the unfamiliar faces. Suddenly, I see it on a crowded gallery wall, hemmed on all sides by more paintings in even more ornate frames, where women in colorful skirts and men with monocles fixed to their eyes flash by in streaks of color and light, appreciating the brushstrokes by the painter’s fine hand. Perhaps the lighting in the room changes over time, and the wall is remodeled, giving the painting some space. A new wave of visitors swing back and forth in front of the painting, with the glow of screens floating by and more than a few giggles hidden behind hands, stimulated by the unnaturally smooth and emotionless features and doll-like hair that was in style decades ago but looks strangely out of place today. What does each person see? And what does he or she take away when he or she leaves?

A room at the Château de Versailles
A window at the Château de Versailles

A similar contemplation can be applied to any object with a history, outside of a gallery or a museum. You could take a look around your home: perhaps there is a unique wall lamp that has been there since you moved in, or a strange window that doesn’t open to the outside but into another room. Or, you might have an old key that belonged to your grandparents, or a coin you picked up off the street dated to 1901. Who might have used it before you? How was their life different from yours, and how was it the same? If the object could talk, what story would it tell? In the absence of an answer, perhaps the best answer is the one you imagine for yourself.

The images were photographed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Château de Versailles in Versailles, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge. Supporting information was obtained through the museum galleries and websites, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

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