The Case: An Exhibitionary Complex

An Exhibitionary Complex (February 2020 – March 2020) 

Curated by Jenny Pistella, NMS Course Tutor and Assessor “A collection…[is] an obsession organised” Aristides These mugs represent four men who amassed vast private collections. These collections then went on to form the origins of large public museums. They are all, top, number 1 collectors. Why do people collect things? What is the human need to collect, organise and place value on objects? Many of the world’s museums were founded, as a result of, and with, the collections of influential, driven and ‘obsessed’ rich men from the ‘collecting age’, from the 18th – 19th centuries. The men who ‘collected the world’. The process of collecting is a personal pursuit, the definition of categories depending on the collector’s beliefs and desires and how they see the world, or how they would like to see the world. In her article ‘The Urge to Collect’ Susan Pearce talks about how collections are determined by the ‘value’ assigned to the objects within them.  A collection is not a collection until someone thinks of it in those terms[1]. These men who ‘collected the world’ were injecting their own beliefs and ideas around value, hierarchy and power in the objects they collected and the way in which they formed their collections. This display is called ‘An Exhibitionary Complex’ as it is inspired by Tony Bennett’s essay, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’[2]. This piece of writing is known as one of the most important texts in the field of art history and museum studies. It argues that the development of the museum in the late 18th and 19th centuries was part of a larger social impulse that served to regulate (and encourage the self-regulation of) the population. His theories aim to explain how museums operate as organs of public instruction, nation-building, and colonialism. Museums were a response to the problem of order – the public learned to know and regulate themselves, as the museum exhibited kinds of knowing, order, and regulation. Museums manufactured consent to be governed and acted as organs of public instruction and as civilising agencies. Presenting the categorisation of objects and people reinforced the imperialist attitude that convinced people they were powerful. A teleological and nationalist approach showed people that they were in a position of power and therefore, must self-regulate. For example, then ‘men who collected the world’ reflected ideas about the taxonomy of objects and people, imperialism and nationalism. This is not to say, all museum collections that originated during the ‘age of collecting’ are intrinsically bad, just that they we should be aware of their origins, critique and analyse them and remind ourselves of the mantra again, that museums are not neutral. [1] Pearce, S. (1994). The Urge to Collect, Interpreting Objects and Collections, London:16 Routledge [2] Bennett, T. (1989). Museums and Public Culture: History, Theory, Policy. Media Information Australia, 53(1), 57–65.  

The Collectors: Sir Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753)

A physician by trade, Sir Hans Sloane was also a collector of objects from around the world. By his death in 1753 he had collected more than 71,000 items. Sloane bequeathed his collection to the nation in his will, and it became the founding collection of the British Museum. Many of the objects in his collection came from his travels in Jamaica where he was a physician to the Governor, the Duke of Albemarle. According to James Delbourgo in his book ‘Collecting the World’ he explains how Sloane saw his trip to Jamaica as a lucrative business opportunity; a chance to collect new medicines and also be paid to treat the islands rich slave-owning class as well as slaves on their plantations. Sloane also used slaves himself to collect many of the plant specimens for his collection. In 1695 he consolidated his fortune by marrying Elizabeth Langley Rose, widow of Fulke Rose, one of Jamaica’s largest slave and plantation owners. Sloane’s intellect, curiosity and service to science, set against the shadow of slavery.

Sir Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820)

Sir Joseph Banks was an English naturalist, botanist, and patron of the arts. He was born in London into a wealthy land-owning family. He inherited a considerable fortune after the death of his father in 1761. His personal wealth allowed him to travel to Newfoundland and Labrador between 1766 and 1767, where he collected many botanical and zoological specimens. He travelled the breadth and width of the British Empire, going on expeditions to the South Pacific and Australia. He collected a vast library and herbarium, and his plant specimens went on to form the basis of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as well as the Natural History Museum. His vast collection of plants and animals are vital to the Museum’s scientific collections, for both scientific research and our understanding of Britain’s colonial past.

General Pitt Rivers (1827 – 1900)

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers was a soldier and collector, interested in anthropology, ethnography and archaeology. His founding gift to the University of Oxford contained more than 26,000 objects and formed the basis of the Pitt Rivers Museum. His military career lasts for 32 years and he was influential in a report on the army’s smoothbore muskets. His interest in collecting began with the evolution of the rifle, which extended to other weapons and tools, and he became a collector of artefacts illustrating the development of human invention. By the time he retired he had amassed ethnographic collections numbering tens of thousands of items from all over the world. Influenced by the evolutionary writings of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, he arranged them typologically and (within types) chronologically.

Sir William Burrell (1861 – 1958)

Sir William Burrell was a Scottish shipping merchant and philanthropist. A collector of art, paintings and antiques, he donated his vast collection to the city of Glasgow, leading to the creation of the Burrell Collection art museum. The story of William Burrell Is also the story of Glasgow, the second city of the empire, at its peak. It’s the story of a man who made a fortune out of shipping and spent it on art. Martin Bellamy, Head of Research at Glasgow Museums, says “He was a typical Victorian entrepreneur. He exploited the world of opportunities that the British Empire created.