ESNA Winter Seminar 2014

Museum and University: Looking for the Nineteenth Century Together A report of the ESNA/XIX event, held on 31 January 2014

When it comes to nineteenth-century art, can museums and universities collaborate in such a way that both institutions maximize their potential? What can be gained from such a collaboration? What problems might be encountered and how can they be solved? These questions were posed at the beginning of an afternoon workshop organised by the European Society for Nineteenth-Century Art (ESNA) and the (Belgian) research platform XIX and hosted by The Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague on 31 January 2014. In addition to seeking answers to the above questions with professionals from museums and universities, the workshop also had the aim to bring together people and projects from Belgium and the Netherlands and lay the foundation for further cooperation between these parties.

1. Starting off the afternoon, Chris Stolwijk, director of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), sketched recent developments that affect the field of art history in general. In the past few decades, the position of art history and its value to society has been the subject of much discussion. A mono-disciplinary course has been replaced by an interdisciplinary one and an increasingly international focus leaves the field even more fragmented. In both universities and museums there is uncertainty about the independent position of the discipline and its research methods.

In recent years, The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) published several reports stating that art history is lacking in innovative and important research and has the image of being old-fashioned and boring. However, at the same time, the number of museum visitors has soared. This paradox begs the question: what about the research that makes these exhibitions possible? It is clear that the academic discipline of art history suffers from a lack of visibility and from the separation between museums and universities. Connections between the two, for example in setting up a joint research agenda, are rarely used even though there are worlds of possibilities for collaboration. In recent years, art historians working in museums and universities have become more aware of these possibilities and of the urgency to explore them. This was confirmed by Werner Adriaenssens, professor at the Free University in Brussels (VUB), who looked at the situation in Belgium. Due to the administrative separation of the Flemish and Walloon communities, which are responsible for both culture and education, the situation of federal museums, which remain under the supervision of the (federal) Belgian government, is sometimes problematic. More generally, differences in approach between curators and academics also lead to major difficulties. The first group focuses on objects and practical matters and the second on sources and theory. Both groups need to reset their goals and to share their knowledge in order to develop new insights. For example, museums could be more lenient in allowing researcher access to objects and could offer practical advice, while universities could involve curators in their teaching programmes or offer museums research and exhibition opportunities through their doctoral candidates. In this way, museums, universities, museum visitors and students can profit from such collaborations.

Conclusions from the general discussion The change of mentality needs to come from the field itself. Especially in Belgium there is a need for ‘meeting places’ where people from different institutions can come together. In most museums, in the Netherlands as well as in Belgium, the orientation is on regional and national art which does not fit in well with the international orientation of many universities these days. Local or regional museums are generally overlooked by academics, although the need for academic input is often more urgent for them. Funding cuts force collaboration between museums and universities and can speed up this process. These days, other parties, such as private collectors or societies are also consulted for collaboration. This means that both fields are already exploring new ways to set up research projects.

Collaboration is possible in various ways: students can have internships at museums or can write their theses on works in museum collections; museum professionals can be invited to collaborate on courses; academics can contribute to exhibitions; etc.

2. In four presentations followed by discussion, professionals from Dutch and Belgian museums and universities provided practical case studies in which such collaborations play a key role:

Jenny Reynaerts, senior curator at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam: Discovering Vermeer: looking at Vermeer through painters’ eyes. Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, curator of prints and drawings at the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam: From Object to Theory: Research on the Van Gogh Museum’s Collection of Fin-de-Siècle Prints. Gilles Weijns, doctoral candidate at Ghent University: Representations of Celtic Women in the Arts of the Long Nineteenth Century: In Search of National Identity and Women’s Rights and Sandra Kisters, lecturer in modern and contemporary art at Utrecht University: Self-Portraits: An Exhibition Project by the Museum for Modern Art in Arnhem and the University of Utrecht.

Conclusions from the four sessions Reynaerts: Provenance research is mainly done in museums and seen solely as object related. But it is also an important tool to discover interesting information and it may be useful to have universities train their students in this specific type of research. In order for the project Discovering Vermeer, which relies mostly on academic research, to reach a large audience, it needs to be duly ‘translated’ into an exhibition or a documentary.

Rosa de Carvalho: Classic methods of museum research focus on the description (etc.) of specific objects. However, it is also possible to learn about greater developments in art history through these objects. The everyday context and use of art objects is often lost in museum presentations and needs to be stressed in university courses. Therefore, universities should focus more on bringing students into contact with objects of art and on visual analysis instead of (or in addition to) them learning about art through illustrations in books. An awareness of artworks as objects is very important.

Weijns: The relation between the iconography of the Boadicea figure and the suffragette movement clearly shows that art history cannot be understood without historical and social context. Interdisciplinarity is the key to understanding art better. For the organisation of an exhibition on the basis of this type of academic research, it is necessary to carefully make a number of important decisions that affect the way academic research is translated to museum presentation. These include questions of presentation (thematically, geographically) and selection (high art vs. visual culture) in addition to practical organisation.

Kisters: The research project on self-portraits is incorporated in an exhibition of 150 self-portraits at the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem. This means that students are able to experience the practicalities of exhibition making, while the museum benefits from their insights. However, some difficulties need to be overcome: an exhibition is framed by a budget and realistic loans, whereas academic research can roam more freely.