Moving artworks, living museums

Dr. Elsje van Kessel is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of St. Andrews. She will be discussing “Temporary exhibitions as object movers in early modern Italy” at Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

Art exhibitions move objects. The invisible transportation of artworks, sometimes even across continents, is a necessity for almost any exhibition. Exhibitions also move people. From the couriers who accompany tapestries, porcelain bowls, paintings, jewels, drawings or sculptures from their own galleries to their new, temporary homes to the thousands of visitors who come to see the show: the movement of objects caused by temporary art exhibitions would not be possible, nor would it make any sense without moving people.

While art exhibitions are an important part of the contemporary cultural landscape, they also have a long history, and my paper will address the genesis of the art exhibition as it took place in the course of several centuries in Italy. Often coinciding with important saints’ days, early art exhibitions would bring together modern and old works of art, the latter given on loan by a community’s wealthiest families. I will argue that these events were connected to a variety of other practices involving the movement of objects, such as processions and ceremonial entries. What all such operations had in common is that they involved transporting objects – paintings, relics, liturgical silverware, miraculous images – temporarily into another context, in which they were given new meanings.

An eighteenth-century art exhibition in Venice, by Michele Marieschi. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum.

An eighteenth-century art exhibition in Venice, by Michele Marieschi. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum.

My fascination with early art exhibitions and the ways they moved objects and people originates in a broader interest in interactions between works of art and their users in early modern Europe. One question that steers my research is how the new art museums founded in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries influenced these interactions. Studying the debates surrounding the new institution in the Romantic period, I found that various influential thinkers were weary of its impact, seeing it as a place where stagnation would reign in deadly silence. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a fervent participant in such debates, formulates a more nuanced critique when he argues for the importance of movement:

Old armories, galleries and museums to which nothing is added are like mausoleums haunted by ghosts. Such a limited circle of art limits our thinking. We get accustomed to regarding such collections as complete, instead of being reminded through ever new additions that in art, as in life, we have nothing that remains finished and at rest, but rather something infinite in constant motion.[1]

Where there is movement, there is life. Through mobility, works of art keep their relevance or acquire a new one. Temporary exhibitions are one way in which such mobility is and was achieved. Studying historical exhibition practises means enhancing our understanding of an essential part of the lives of artworks.

[1] Quoted from Astrida Orle Tantillo, The Will to Create: Goethe’s Philosophy of Nature (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), 102.


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