Top museum directors discuss the challenges of leading institutions in the global era

The benefits and drawbacks of lending art were considered

VENICE. The challenges of globalisation, the ethics of lending works of art for fees and the neglect of permanent collections in favour of temporary exhibitions were among the issues addressed by some of the world’s leading museum directors during a conference, “Opening Museums to the World”, held in Venice on 8 May.

The study day, which was organised by the Istituto Veneto, a local cultural institute, concluded a week of seminars organised by the INP (Institut National du Patrimoine), a training body for French curators and conservators.

Opening proceedings, Geneviève Gallot, the INP director, observed that museums “could no longer ignore internationalisation”. She recognised that “works must circulate” while acknowledging that preservation remained of paramount concern.

Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum, sounded a note of restraint when he declared himself “perplexed” by the activities of western museums in countries where their “heritage makes no sense”. Asserting that a museum’s role is “to preserve before presenting”, he stressed the importance of educating the public before lending. “To lend into the emptiness becomes an abuse of art,” he said. He suggested that masterpieces could be presented to foreign museums, at least in the first instance, as digital images.

Emmanuel Coquery, deputy scientific director of Agence France-Muséum which is co-ordinating the Louvre Abu Dhabi project on behalf of 12 national museums, stressed that the education of the Gulf museum’s staff and the public would be paramount.

Mr Coquery gave a brief outline of the project, which will see an initial loan of 300 works followed by another 250 and then a further 200 over 10 years. The museum’s permanent collection will fill 6,000 sq. m of exhibition space. The first section will focus on the history of the representation of the world. Then there will be a chronological display explaining key moments in the art history of Western, Arab and Far Eastern civilisations. Considerable weight will be placed on decorative arts, he said.

Interacting with the permanent collection will be a series of “hybrid” spaces on universal themes such as death, paradise and work. There will be four temporary shows a year.

The concerns of French national museums were very different from those of their Italian counterparts. Giandomenico Romanelli, the director of Venice Civic Museums, highlighted the fragile, disparate, impoverished nature of Italy’s state museum network. Italian museums, hampered by export laws, cannot pursue financially-motivated loan policies.

Yet Mr Romanelli felt that Italy’s weakness might become its strength. “The French model suffers from its centrality,” he said. “Our reality reflects the territorial reality of Italy and this makes it adaptable.”

Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, showed little sign of wishing to adapt to modern concerns. He spoke with nostalgia of the pre-war days when the Uffizi in Florence saw just 50,000 visitors per year as opposed to the 1.5m it receives today. He complained that today’s visitors went round museums too fast and saw only the most iconic works.

Of concern to all participants was the neglect of permanent collections in favour of temporary exhibitions. “The ephemeral has killed off the permanent,” said Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre, as he lamented the lack of visitors to the museum’s Flemish wing.

A more pragmatic view was taken by Timothy Clifford, former director of the National Galleries of Scotland, who pointed out that permanent collections are sustained by successful exhibitions, which in turn depend on an active loans programme with other museums.

It looks as if the temporary exhibition is here to stay. A study of 100 newly-built international museums by Guido Guerzoni, an economist from Milan’s Bocconi University, on behalf of the Fondazione Venezia, showed that more space (15%-20%) is being reserved for temporary exhibits than at any previous time. Permanent collections account for around 20%-25%, with the remaining space taken up with office, storage and education areas.

Perhaps museum directors should heed Sandrina Bandera, director of the export office of the Pinacoteca di Brera

of Milan. In the closing question and answer session, she said

the onus was on museums to change their approach to presenting their permanent collections: “We must find a new vocabulary because we can’t change our collections.”

Rachel Spence

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