I’ve recently been given links to two interesting websites. Both function effectively as virtual museums, bringing together collections of artefacts and displaying them as they existed at one point in time, before the temporary exhibition was dispersed as had always been planned, and the permanent one became the victim of circumstances which led to its (thankfully) not being lost, but being re-homed in a context and arrangement which inevitably differs from what the original compilers had intended.
The temporary exhibition first. In 1813, Jane Austen was in London, and seized the opportunity to visit a retrospective exhibition of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (who had died in 1792), held at the British Institution’s Pall Mall Picture Galleries (previously Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery). The three-month exhibition, opened by the Prince of Wales on 8 May, with such luminaries as Lord Byron and Mrs Siddons in attendance, was immensely popular, drawing up to as many as 800 visitors a day.
Now Professor Janine Barchas and a team from the University of Texas at Austin have recreated the exhibition online, using the contemporary printed catalogue as their main source of information. You can take a virtual tour of all the rooms, with Reynolds’ pictures hanging as they were in 1813, the very familiar (George III and Queen Charlotte, Dr Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick torn between tragedy and comedy, and indeed Mrs Siddons herself from thirty years before, as the Tragic Muse) as well as the less well known, and several which have either been destroyed or lost to sight in the last two hundred years. Some of these have survived in the form of engravings, which represent the lost originals on the website; others are known only from descriptions.
The website is fascinating: apart from the virtual tour, Professor Barchas has provided an essay on the exhibition itself and its reception, as well as lots of detail about the building of the website and the historically informed choices made about the display. It is a wonderful opportunity to show ‘What Jane Saw’, and one can think of a number of other steps back in time that might be possible – how about the Crystal Palace, for example?
The other site is call ‘Ruskin at Walkley‘. Walkley, near Sheffield in Yorkshire was the home of the Museum of St George, which John Ruskin founded in 1875, with a view to its being a visual and intellectual resource for the local metal workers. An engraver and former student of Ruskin, Henry Swan, was installed as curator in a cottage which Ruskin purchased and in which he installed items from his own collection, including John Bunney’s wonderful painting of the façade of San Marco. Ruskin himself described the genesis of the Guild of St George and the collection in Vol. 30 of the Works, and the curator of the website, Dr Marcus Waithe, gives essential background information about the building and its contents (which can still be seen, but at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, where they found a permanent home, after many vicissitudes, in 2011).
But the fun lies in your ability to hover over the exterior on the house, or over any of the objects in the rooms inside, and be given more detail about them, either a short note or a long essay, depending on the importance of the artefact. So Bunney’s masterwork is accompanied by a colour image (the room views are taken from original sepia photographs), and an essay on the man and his work. Also in the room are some of Rooke’s detailed copies of the mosaics in the interior of San Marco, several casts of details of the carving of the basilica and the Doge’s palace, a copy of a Turner view of Coblenz by Arthur Severn, and a few objects (likely to be more plaster casts) which cannot (yet) be identified.
It sounds (and at first glance looks) like clutter of the kind which Mrs Panton deplored, but as I looked more carefully, I realised that all the items around Bunney’s picture in fact served to illuminate the basilica by focusing in on detail: the next most prominent image, Ruskin’s own watercolour of Santa Maria della Spina at Pisa, illustrates the next stage of Gothic, and the replacement of round arches by pointed ones. As you move round the virtual room, you can see other examples of ‘Gothic art’, including copies of one painting in Carpaccio‘s ‘St Ursula’ sequence, and of Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’. (Both of these were painted by Charles Fairfax Murray, who started life in the drawing office of a railway engineer, then worked for Burne-Jones, and then for William Morris (as both designer and painter), was sent to Italy by Ruskin for further training, began to deal in art, and ended up advising and buying on behalf of galleries worldwide, including the Fitzwilliam Museum here in Cambridge, to which he donated Titian’s terrifying ‘Tarquin and Lucretia‘. He was also apparently the head of two large families, one in Italy and one in England, of which it is safe to say that Ruskin would not have approved.)
Anyway, having moved round the rooms, you can also browse through specific exhibits like Ruskin’s watercolour of a single peacock’s feather, which leads to an essay describing Ruskin’s views on painting feathers, the symbolism of peacocks, the barbarity of the mosaic restorations in San Marco, and evolution. Each of the exhibits offers this wonderfully detailed background – and it is at this point that the old and the modern senses of the verb ‘to browse’ come appropriately together.
So do these two sites foreshadow the museums of the future? They are wonderful resources if, as here, the original locations and/or collections no longer exist, and a great boon if you don’t have the time or resources to travel to the original. And the ‘browsing’ element, in both senses, certainly beats the more conventional ‘catalogue’ displays on many museum websites, where you need to know what you want to look at in order to find it, and the happenstance quality of wandering around is lost. (I came face to face with ‘the most gorgeous countess of Blessington‘ in the (real, bricks-and-mortar) Wallace Collection the other day – I had quite forgotten she was there, but now I have the postcard.) I’d like to think that, even in these decadent days, ‘Let’s go to the Fitzwilliam!’ has a more alluring quality than ‘Let’s go to the interactive website!’ – and online purchasing does not of course provide the same lust for possession as exiting through the gift shop!