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Introduction to A Museum of One's Own: Private Collecting, Public Gift

This digital project was initiated by Anne Higonnet, Ann Whitney Olin Professor at Columbia University and Barnard College, and was influenced by her work on the history of collecting. Her book, A Museum of One's Own: Private Collecting, Public Gift, is a study of public collections assembled by private collectors; the Hispanic Society of America exemplifies this sort of institution, and the introduction to her book is excerpted below to place this project in context. This website treats the Hispanic Society as an ideal case study for Higonnet’s theories on "Collection Museums."

Caleb Smith, Director, Media Center for Art History

A Museum of One's Own

The greatest art of every time and place was for sale. Pried loose from royal, aristocratic, and church possession by the industrial and political revolutions of the late eighteenth century, or seized by colonial conquest, precious treasures swept into a public market. Suddenly, money could buy paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt, Vermeer or Velázquez, sculptures by Cellini, sumptuous illuminated manuscripts, entire rooms of rococo furniture, ancient Roman mosaics, splendid seventeenth-century Persian carpets, Pre-Columbian gold, or the finest Chinese Ming and Qing porcelains. Some masterpieces went straight into museums, institutions which were just as much the product of a modern attitude to art as the market that supplied them. Many masterpieces went into private homes. The most avid private buyers collected at once for themselves and for a museum. These extreme collectors amassed art in order to create museums of their own, museums that preserved not only objects but also an individual vision of how art should be experienced. In an era of unlimited acquisition opportunity, some collectors purchased immortality.

By the Second World War, the era of the collection museum had ended. Art markets tightened. Museums became increasingly professional and collectors ceased asserting themselves so personally. But the collection museums of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century remained. All across Europe and the United States, museums like the Wallace Collection in London, the Musée Condé near Paris, the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Frick Collection in New York, the Huntington Art Gallery in Pasadena California, and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. continued to maintain personal collections, more or less as they had originally been installed. When you cross the threshold of these preserved collections, you enter another world. Time has stood still. Nothing seems to have changed for decades, perhaps for more than a century. A ghost hovers everywhere, the ghost of the person who once acquired all these things, who lived with them and wanted them to stay together forever.

Preserved collections have always fascinated me. At first, I visited them as alternatives to gigantic institutions like the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The scale was so much more manageable, and the individuality of each place engaged me personally. The more I looked, the more preserved art collections I found across Europe and the United States. From the Hallwyska Museum in Stockholm to the Benaki Museum in Athens, from the Ringling Museum in Florida to Maryhill in Washington, dozens of museums preserve a founder's installation of their collection. Sometimes the whole collection is fossilized, preserved by a rigid will like a time-capsule. Sometimes the traces of the founder's taste have become faint, either because their instructions were flexible or because new imperatives have overridden old intentions.

Is there one name that fits them all? Certainly they should not be called house museums, because, though they may appear, superficially, like private houses, they were all intended, from the start, to become public museums of art. Private museums? They are all public. Personal museums? More accurate, because they are personal, even though they are public. Personal art collection museums? Very accurate, but cumbersome. Perhaps collection museum is the best solution, with an occasional reminder that the collection is of art. Several of these institutions actually call themselves "collection" rather than "museum," as in the "Frick Collection." Collection means at once the activity of accumulating and the totality of the objects assembled, both of which are crucial to the museums this book is about. At its most active, collection is always personal. Even the most professional and institutional museum collections turn out to rely on the contributions of passionate, not to say compulsive, individual collectors. Collection, moreover, always involves desire for valuable things, and few, if any, kinds of things have been more coveted in modern times than art however art is defined. The ultimate collector is an art collector. The ultimate collection museum is necessarily an art collection museum.

Each collection museum seems to be unique. Each one serves as a monument to an individual founder, or founding couple, and memorializes their personal taste in art. Yet as I continued visiting collection museums, I noticed that they also have a lot in common. Despite their many differences, they do fall into some patterns. No one knows better what makes each collection museum unique than its curators and archivists. They have published catalogues of their collections and biographies of their founders essential to any understanding of their institutions.


What collection museums have in common does not contradict what makes them unique. Looking for patterns reveals another dimension to them. My project has been to see the logic behind aspects of collection museums that seemed incidental, odd, or trivial, and especially those which could not be seen at all except as parts of patterns.

The most basic pattern is chronological. The great collection museums were opened within fifty years of each other, from 1890 to 1940. The Condé was inaugurated in 1898, the Wallace in 1900, the Gardner in 1903, the Huntington in 1919, the Frick in 1935, Dumbarton Oaks in 1940. Taking into account the decades of collecting and installation that preceded inaugurations, we are dealing with an era stretching from the revolutions of 1848 to the Second World War. When collection museums are grouped together according to their dates, and then organized chronologically, it becomes apparent that historical forces produced them just as surely as did their individual founders. Through their objects and installations, collection museums display the choices, beliefs, and values of their era.

During their era, contemporaries recognized how much collection museums had in common. The lineages and affinities that once seemed obvious are the subject of chapter one. The Camondo, it seemed self-evident to contemporaries, resembled its Parisian neighbor the Jacquemart-André. Kettle's Yard in Cambridge England it was once plain to see, was modelled on the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Who couldn't understand that all of them reacted against the exhausting expanses and clinically sorted galleries of the great national and municipal museum behemoths? They were all trying to make visitors feel at home with art. Some museums, inevitably, succeeded better than others. Already in their time, the Wallace, Condé, Gardner, Frick, Huntington, and Dumbarton Oaks emerged as the most ambitious, magnificent, and representative museums of their sort.

Like professional curators, the greatest private collectors wanted the best art they could find and afford. Unlike curators, some collectors—Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, Henri d'Orléans, duc d'Aumale, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry Clay Frick, Arabella and Henry E. Huntington, or Mildred and Robert Bliss—could find and afford just about anything they wanted. They could strike faster and had more wealth at their immediate disposal than most established museums. And they were in a race against death. People who wanted their collections to survive them were particularly susceptible to the aura of transcendence around masterpieces. Timeless beauty promised immortality by association.

Timeless beauty, however, has a history of its own that proves to be quite timely. Lined up in chronological order, the collections of the Wallace, Condé, Gardner, Frick, Huntington, and Dumbarton Oaks provide a vivid summary of changes in taste. Looking at their most characteristic acquisitions reveals a collecting pattern that is the subject of chapter two. From the sumptuous French decorative arts at the heart of the Wallace Collection, to the Old Master European paintings increasingly valued according to style and authorship, at the Condé, Gardner, Frick, and Huntington collections, to the Byzantine and then Pre-Columbian art collected for Dumbarton Oaks, the history of esthetic value unfolds. The rise of formalism, of professional art history, and of the art dealer, all contributed to new definitions of beauty.

Huntington's LibraryHuntington's Library at Pleasance, Baychester, New York, ca. 1900. HSA.

Collection museums exhibit some of their masterpieces in art galleries. Others are displayed in what look uncannily like halls, dining-rooms, libraries, and parlors, or even in occasional boudoirs, bedrooms, kitchens, or bathrooms. The effect is of a home. The effect is only an effect. A close look at records reveals that collectors commissioned and installed their "homes" after they had decided to found public institutions. They were designing homes for their collection, rather than for themselves. Another pattern emerges: a pattern of installation design which is the subject of chapter three. Calculated effects of domesticity were intended to recreate the contexts in which art had originally been made, and to provide future audiences with an intimate experience of art. Consistently referring to their installations as their creations, founders protected them with legal wills. Looking back on the architecture and interiors of collection museums from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, I think of them, retroactively I admit, as massive works of installation art, whose subject was time, and whose authors were their collectors.

Collectors idealized the time of art history in their museums. By domesticating time, collectors tamed it, repaired it and improved it. In doing so, they idealized themselves. Their collections functioned as alter-egos, an issue discussed in chapter four. In a general sense, collectors created museums to represent them after their deaths. Look more closely, and again for patterns, in almost all surviving collection museums or in their archives, and you will find a more concentrated self-image. Whether collectors used portraits of themselves, portraits of others, or emblems, they embedded images of themselves somewhere in their installations. Just as I think of the installations of collection museums as representations of time, so I think of the images of collectors within them as representations of self—self-portraits in the medium of the museum.

Collection museums offered special opportunities for self-representation because they reconciled the supposedly opposite values of private and public. At once private homes and public institutions, collection museums hovered in a porous zone between domestic and professional domains. This liminal position explains what is perhaps the most surprising pattern followed by collection museums, which is explored in chapter five. Fully half of them were founded or cofounded by women. Search no farther than the six greatest among collection museums. Though the collections of the Wallace were assembled by the men of the Hertford family, the museum was founded by a woman, Amélie Wallace. The Gardner was entirely the creation of Isabella Stewart Gardner—note the full name: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The force behind the scenes at the Huntington was Arabella Huntington. And at Dumbarton Oaks, though the Pre-Columbian collection was acquired by Robert Bliss, the Byzantine collection was jointly assembled by Robert and Mildred Bliss, while the gardens and the museum as a whole were the work of Mildred, as was the commission of the pavilion that houses the Pre-Columbian collection. At a time when women had only recently begun to control property unconditionally, when they were refused access to most forms of higher education, and when many roles in the art world remained problematic for them, collection museums offered an exceptional opportunity. While appearing to conform to accepted models of domestic femininity, women could negotiate a collection museum into a presence for themselves in the public sphere of culture.

Collections turned into museums gradually. Whether they were founded by men or by women, they passed through several intermediate stages before they became fully public. Whether a founder was fleeing the burdens of a public identity, or was afraid to seem too eager for one, stalling had its advantages. Collectors sought to retain control over their creations, gingerly accepting institutional attributes like catalogues, circulation paths, regular visiting hours, and comprehensive acquisition policies. By the end of their lives, most founders had written wills that required trustees and curators to keep their collections moving in a public direction.


Giant, three-dimensional archives, they had preserved the evidence of the past. Inadvertently, founders, by fossilizing their collections, had fossilized history. The spatial relationships of installations had survived, adding to objects a rich and rare layer of meaning.

Only collection museums can consistently provide that kind of evidence. They allow an exceptionally visual understanding of a crucial aspect of the history of art. Art exhibition being by definition visual, it would seem ideal to understand its visual qualities. If we care about the social resonance of art objects, and if we care about the history of visuality, then surely we should care about the immediate visual context in which art objects are perceived. The most authoritative, durable, and persuasive visual context for art has been first and foremost the art museum, ever since the invention of the institution in the late eighteenth century. Perhaps the whole point of the art museum, which is to structure and govern the visual perception of art objects, is so obvious that we have taken it for granted.

In any case, the history of art could pay much more attention to the ways in which the meanings of art are staged and compounded by their installation in spaces designed for the purpose of making people experience art visually.7 Yet most studies of exhibitions, even those attentive to the semiotics of display, are limited in their ability to take visuality into account. The exhibitions they study simply no longer exist, and records of them are scarce. Before the age of cinema and video, it was technically possible with drawings, prints, and photographs to record the sight of exhibitions, only very partially. Motivation has also been lacking. Before the advent of museum studies, only the objects in museum collections seemed to merit investigation. Moving to the opposite extreme, many museum studies have considered objects as pretexts for social agendas or as the superficial signs of psychic impulses.

Collection museums should be directly experienced, and they can be. Most of the spaces and installations this book describes still exist. They wait for you to re-enter what the great critic Walter Benjamin, writing about collection, called "a profound enchantment" in which "the thrill of acquisition" casts "a magic circle" around objects. The ideas that animated the enchantment, the thrill, the magic, of collection museums are now at least a century old. I have tried to retrieve and reconstruct those ideas to keep them from fading away. The founders of collection museums invited you to be at home with art, and I can only hope to renew their invitation.

Anne Higonnet, Professor of Art History, Barnard College

© 2009 Periscope Publishing Ltd.