Friday, 31 December 2010

New books: The emergence of a national museum

Before 2010 ends I should take the opportunity to post a final review of a book published in 2009. In his doctoral dissertation Från kungligt galleri till nationellt museum – Aktörer, praktik och argument i svensk konstmuseal diskurs ca 1814-1845 (“From Royal Art Gallery to National Museum: Actors, Practices and Arguments within Swedish Art Museum Discourse ca 1814-1845”), published as a book by Gidlunds Förlag, Per Widén looks not at the history of the National Museum in itself, but on the process which led to the establishment of a national museum of fine arts in Sweden.
Unlike earlier chroniclers of the Swedish National Museum, Widén sees no direct line between the Royal Museum, set up by the Regent (later Carl XIII) following the assassination of Gustaf III in 1792, and the National Museum. The museum was housed in a few small rooms at the Royal Palace, but significant parts of the state art collection were in the royal apartments where they were only accessible to the public when the royals were not in residence.
Many thus realised that one needed a national museum of art located in a building of its onw, yet this did not happen until 1866, when the museum moved into a building at Blasieholmen opposite the Palace which had cost 2,270,877 riksdaler, making it the most expensive building to be erected in Stockholm since the Palace itself.
Widén sets out to investigate how it came about that the state invested such an astronomic sun of money in making its art collection accessible, who were the most important advocates of such a museum, how they went about it and what visions for the museum were formulated.
He identifies a group of approximately thirty advocates for a museum, seven of whom he considers most central: Gustaf Anckarsvärd, Axel Nyström, Fredrik Boije, Hugo Hamilton, Lars Jakob von Röök, Johan Way and Johan Henrik Schröder, all of them continuously active for a long time. Widén also looks at the relations between these actors and what arenas they operated on.
The most important meeting place, and the focal point of this group, was the royal court. But it was not the court as such or the royal family who ran the process, which Widén sees in relation to the changes in society during the 18th and 19th centuries which had seen civil society gain strength at the cost of the royals and the court. This also led to a new national discourse taking place in new public arena.
There was at first no organised or formalised group running this process, but overlapping groups of people who in different ways made their livings through the arts. Eventually they came together and in 1832 they established Stockholms allmänna konstförening (Stockholm Public Society of Art), which had the establishment of a national museum as its aim. Widén argues that the establishment of the society should be seen as a consequence of Parliament having voted down a proposition about a museum in 1832.
Acting as an organised group naturally made them stronger than when operating as individuals. They did not seek to influence public opinion through a press debate, but through hands-on work with art exhibitions and art museums wherever possible, thus setting a “practicable and non-confrontational” example.
The press, it seems to Widén, saw the need for an art museum as “self-evident”, which explains why there were no principle-based discussions about state responsibility in artistic matters. Parliament was the only arena where this consensus was challenged.
The issue was first raised in Parliament in 1817-1818 and voted down without any debate. Another proposition by Court Marshal Fredrik Philip Klingspor (probably written by Axel Nyström and Fredrik Boije) was rejected in 1828. Six years later Jacob Wilhelm Sprengtporten included a suggestion for a building for a national museum and library in a proposition about a number of new public buildings in the capital, but the museum question was mostly lost in a wider debate on other issues. Yet another proposition in 1840 received a somewhat warmer welcome and in 1844 it was decided, with a majority of two votes, to build a museum – which would nevertheless not open for a further 22 years.
As can be seen from this list of dates little happened during the 1830s. Widén sees this as a consequence of King Carl XIV Johan being about to solve the issue on his own. With his background in Napoleonic circles, the King could not possibly be unfamiliar with the great importance accorded to the arts and museums of art during the French First Empire, Widén argues.
The King had commissioned his favourite architect Fredrik Blom to design a building for an art museum next to his new summer palace Rosendal. Work began in 1834 and it has been a commonly held perception that the museum building was intended to house the King’s private art collection, but Widén argues that the plans were at some stage altered and has figured out that approximately half of the state’s art collection could have been fitted into the projected building.
Widén admits that he has found no contemporary sources supporting such a theory, but it seems feasible that the absence of any museum propositions in Parliament during the 1830s – except the one which included a museum in a more general construction plan – might be linked to the King’s ongoing project. And it is only after work on the unfinished museum at Rosendal stopped in 1838 that the issue again reappears in Parliament.
Widén also sees the emergence of a Swedish national museum in an international context. He points out how palaces as well as museums around 1800 began to attract new groups of visitors from other segments of the population than earlier, something which caused the museum to present their collections in a different way as one could no longer count on the visitors to be well-informed in advance. Whereas one had earlier hung the same motif from different schools of paintings together to highlight the differences between the schools one now began to arrange them as a “pedagogical illustration of the history of art”.
For comparison Widén looks at museums in Rome, Vienna, Paris, Munich, Berlin, London, St Petersburg and Copenhagen. As a Norwegian reader one cannot avoid noticing that there is not a word about the situation in Norway at the same time, even though Widén stresses the importance for the Swedish situation of the fact that similar museums were appearing in other European countries.
The author observes that when the issue was first raised in Parliament in 1828 there were few great art museums in Europe, but when the issue reappeared in 1840 the situation had changed radically in that major museums had opened in Berlin, Munich and London, while the Louvre was growing and the Hermitage expanding. The small Royal Museum in Stockholm thus did not stand well in comparison with other European capitals.
Widén mentions the art museum at the second Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen in 1829 and the work on the New Hermitage in St Petersburg beginning in 1839 as examples from Stockholm’s neighbourhood, but ignores Christiania (now Oslo) although Sweden and Norway were at the time in a union of crowns (although both independent kingdoms).
A Norwegian national museum of art had first been proposed to the Norwegian Parliament by Hans Riddervold in April 1836 and the motion was passed in late December that year. 28 paintings were bought for the museum in May 1837 and in 1841 the National Museum opened in some rooms of the still not completed Royal Palace.
The swift establishment of a national museum in the country with which Sweden was in a union might have been an interesting contrast to look at for comparison. What took 25 years in Sweden took eight months in Norway and one must wonder if the issue being so speedily solved in Norway may not have influenced or at least played some sort of role for the changing attitudes in the Swedish Parliament.
A glance to the west would also have modified Widén’s statement that “the great art museums of the 19th century, with the exception of the National Gallery in Britain, all have their origins in princely collections transferred to state ownership”. The Norwegian National Museum is another example of that not being the case.
Despite this final reservation on my part the main impression is that Per Widén has delivered an insightful and convincing account of the long process which led to the establishment of the institution that is the National Museum of Sweden, the actors which ran the process and the ideas of the day about museums’ purposes and functions. As such it is a valuable addition to the literature on the history of the National Museum.

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