Collectionneurs & Musées, series: «Ce que collectionner veut dire» | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Collectionneurs & Musées, series: «Ce que collectionner veut dire»

Collectionneurs & Musées, series: «Ce que collectionner veut dire»
by Géraldine David and François Mairesse, Editors

Wittockiana, Brussels, 2002
130 pp., illus. b/w. Paper, 15 euros
ISBN: 978-2-87305-010-8.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
December 2022

This collection of essays is the second volume of an ongoing lecture and conference series on “what it means to collect”, under the editorial and scholarly direction of Géraldine David, Director of the Wittockiana book museum in Brussels, and François Mairesse, professor of museum studies at the Sorbonne and former president of ICOFOM (ICOM’s International Committee for Museology). The first volume addressed the psychology of collecting; other volumes will tackle questions of gender, the world of auctions, the links between collecting and cultural policies in the heritage field, fundraising, etc.

If the theme of the book is collectors and museums, its real subject is the missing link between them: gifts and donations––that is, collectors as donors and museums as receiving institutions (and to be even more precise: the book also makes a sharp distinction between gifts and loans, the legal position of the latter being fundamentally different from that of the former). In an illuminating introduction based on the classic anthropological gift theory by Marcel Mauss, Mairesse scrutinizes not only the how but also the why of the donating practice. On the one hand, why do collectors donate–or not, for not all donating intentions are eventually materialized? On the other hand, why do museums accept donations–or not? The respective motivations of both parties can be mapped along three main lines. First, one donates or accepts a donation for one’s own sake (collectors become donors because they want their name to survive with the help of a museum, museums accept donations in order to remain attractive as museums). Second, one donates or accepts a donation for the sake of the collection itself (collectors see museums as a bulwark against dispersion and scattering, museums use donations in order to strengthen their own collections). Third: one donates or accepts a donation for the sake of the larger community. In practice, there is often an overlap of all these motivations, but what matters is that there is often a lack of symmetry between the drive of the donor and that of the museum. Mairesse sketches a very useful taxonomy of the various ways in which the motivations and impetuses of both parties can converge and diverge, and this mapping is the perfect background to understand the success stories as well as the failures of the permanent dialogue between collectors and museums (a dialogue that continues to increase due to the shrinking acquisition budgets of museums and the indecent prices of the art market).

The case studies that follow have in common the analysis of the necessary “match” between collector and museum. This match is complex. It does not happen overnight (even when collectors suddenly fall in love with a museum, the mutual relationship has to be carefully elaborated after this moment of love at first sight). At the same time, it is something that supposes a large amount of intuition and emotional intelligence (all things that are difficult to teach and are therefore largely absent from academic curricula). In other words: both parties always have to do the right thing on the right place and at the right time, but the notions of “place” and “time” are highly elastic. The “place” of a donation is not only the place where it will be on display but the whole museum, while the “time” of a donation frequently goes on forever (sometimes even after the moment when the donation is no longer on display).

The various essays, position papers, and interviews of the book give a clear insight in five major issues.

First of all, the vital importance of the cultural and historical context of what it means to donate. On the continent, where the “philanthropic” tradition is weaker than in the UK or the US, the link with state sponsorship and the legal and logistical implications of this situation are, for instance, an element that complicates the one-to-one relationship between collectors and museums.

Second, the impact of donations on the very DNA of a museum’s mission. According to the current ICOM definition, “A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.” But one immediately sees how donating, which at first sight perfectly matches the “collecting” mission may enter in conflict with the rapidly increasing importance of the “participative” dimension of museums: the new audiences modern museums try to attract are not necessarily interested in all donations, prestigious and culturally valuable as they may be.

Third, donation practices also need to be examined and analyzed according to the specific type of medium and museum they target. Many book donors, for instance, are not directly concerned with the public display of their donation, which is generally a key incentive for collectors in the field of visual arts (for them, the museum preserves are a kind of prison, the" first step toward complete oblivion).

Fourth, the usefulness of studying what has gone wrong in the past. In this regard, the examples given in this book are a real eye-opener, and one better grasps not only why certain donations should have been refused (there is the questions of the donor’s unreasonable and lasting interferences, but also that of the lack of a clear acquisition policy), but also why certain promising contacts between donors and museums never fruitfully materialized while both parties clearly saw the interest of a collaboration (yes, budgetary questions do always play a role, but also certain museum governance structures).

Fifth and finally, but this enumeration is far from exhaustive, this book is also extremely interesting in drawing our attention to new problems, such as a new type of donation that is the author’s personal archive (more and more writers try to donate their complete archives to libraries or even museums, and one may ask whether these archives can still be considered “collections”).

Gathering a wide range of different voices, academic (but not only for art-historical or economic departments) and professional (equally from very diverse scope and nature), this book is an excellent theoretical as well as hands-on introduction to the contemporary challenges of the gift economy.