Fairs Museums Books United Kingdom

Directors give a personal tour of their museums

Introductions by the experts shed new light on their collections

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, A Portrait of Countess Golovine, around 1797- 1800, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Fine art museums and galleries have long relied on guidebooks or heavily illustrated publications of “masterpieces” to both promote their collections and act as souvenirs. Scala Publishers has a substantial track record of producing these forms of attractively designed and informative art books at reasonable prices. However, it has recently been taking a different approach by publishing a series of introductory catalogues in a much smaller format, under the rubric of “Director’s Choice” (although at least one curator and one chief executive have slipped into this club).

The aim is to invite museum directors to choose around 30 to 40 works of art “that speak to them personally and explain the reasons for their choices”. Around 15 international collections have been covered to date, around half from the UK and half from abroad, split between institutions in the US and continental Europe. Some metropolitan museums are very well known, while regional ones are less so. However, the successful outcome (or not) of the individual books very much depends on the originality and clarity of their authors. For instance, the “collection” of archaeological sites, castles and country houses managed by English Heritage, despite the knowledgeable enthusiasm displayed in the descriptions by its chief executive, Simon Thurley, is marred by unnecessary superlatives cut and pasted from this government agency’s PR department, such as “uniquely preserved”, “seminal” and “miraculous”.

Generally, however, the authors of the British volumes have worked diligently to make their selections depend as much on curatorial collaboration as on intellectual enthusiasm. The volumes on the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Wallace Collection play fairly safe in choosing Old Master paintings and French decorative arts. However, one of the most successful contributions is made by David Gaimster, whose often quirky choices of artefacts in the Hunterian at the University of Glasgow provide compelling narratives drawn from William Hunter’s astonishingly diverse collections, infused with the spirit of enquiry of the Enlightenment. This is one of the finest volumes in the series.

Of a very different nature is Ann Sumner’s highly personal account of her favourite paintings, drawings and sculptures in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham. Without being over-demonstrative or sentimental, the author reveals which works of art hold personal meanings for her and her family, alongside the development of her own aesthetic responses to great art from the past.

Nonetheless, the masterclass in the writing of a set of texts that takes the reader on an ekphrastic journey of discovery of colour, line and composition is provided by Nicholas Penny, who had the hardest job of all: to make us look afresh at a very great art collection that we think we know so well. This exquisite miniature of a publication sets the benchmark for future contributions to a highly pleasurable new series.

The writer is a former president of Icom’s international committee of museums and collections of fine arts (2004-10)

Director’s Choice: Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, Ian Dejardin; Director’s Choice: the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Anne Sumner; Director’s Choice: English Heritage, Simon Thurley; Director’s Choice: the National Gallery, London, Nicholas Penny; Director’s Choice: the Wallace Collection, London, Christoph Vogtherr; Director’s Choice: the Hunterian, University of Glasgow, David Gaimster; Scala Publishers, 80pp, £9.95 each (pb)

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