Review of Diversifying the History of Collecting: Collecting the Sacred: Art, Belief and Identity

Emerging Scholars Workshop, 2nd March 2021

The processes behind the acquisition, display and gifting of religious art and sacred decorative objects dominated the subject of the most recent Emerging Scholars Research workshop. Four papers were devoted to the respectful interrogation of different cultural traditions, beliefs and identities and in turn, how the aggregation of religiously charged art collections should be approached in a nuanced and individual manner. The notion of ‘collecting the sacred’ has been long associated with the Italian Renaissance and preoccupation with Roman Catholic liturgical visual culture – a reason why diversifying frameworks as well as collections, is much needed in scholarship today. These four early career researchers thus demonstrated alternative case studies, paying particular attention to the personal and intimate relationships playing out between the artist, the collector, the dealer, as well as the consumer and the artworks themselves.

For instance, our first speaker Mathew Norman was able to ‘bring to life’ the sociability rituals of late eighteenth-century British evangelical society through a close examination of a portrait collection, produced and maintained by three generations of the Bacon male line. The practice of portrait-drawing the likenesses of friends and family particularly allowed ‘the successful early nineteenth-century sculptor’, John Bacon the Younger (1777-1859), to serve his evangelical Christian identity that urged followers to subscribe to voluntary activity. In some form, drawing portraits epitomised evangelical-revival principles where an individual’s personal faith was celebrated in an intimate and domestic setting. Not only Bacon’s choice of sitters serves as a valuable record of personalities within the close evangelical community of the time, but he was able to visually capture the significance of the home as a ‘spiritual refuge’ to believers. This was intentionally set beyond his professional, commercial studio and within a private, exclusive sanctuary for those believers who did not wish to be exposed to the polluting influences of other Christian denominations, as well as other ‘untrue’ faiths. He suggests that it would have been frowned upon to financially gain from such works of art that captured the sacred realm of the family, which is why many were dispersed or acquired through charitable gifting.

The next speaker, Dr Ali Bennett, taps into similar ideas and discusses how one particularly interesting set of sacred Ugandan charms had been removed from their original setting and dispersed across foreign and local museums (the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge and the County Museum in Kampala). The relocation of such objects was steered by Sir Apollo Kagwa (1864–1927), one of the earliest Ugandan converts to Protestantism and appointed Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Buganda between 1890 and 1926, however the Protestant missionaries, John Bosco and Ernest Miller, have been so far credited in British curatorship. Dr Bennet discussed how Kagwa engaged in an activity traditionally attributed to white, European men of privilege, where he saw the exploitative nature of his own local and indigenous traditions. Manufactured from local materials, the ‘fetishes’, ‘charms’ and relics associated with the gods, spirits and ghosts of ‘Bakungu’ and Bugandan traditional sacred culture were used to solidify Kagwa’s political autonomy with the British. The use of gifting went hand-in-hand with the negotiation of the Uganda Agreement of 1900, capitalising on Western-centric ideologies that misunderstood these sacred objects as ‘unchanged modern-day remnants of darkest Africa’.

The action of ‘othering’ works of art that originate from a distant and unknown community was juxtaposed in the 3rdspeaker, Karen Winslow’s insightful deconstruction of Bernard Berenson’s (1865-1959) religious awakenings during the gilded age, via the analysis of two letters. One detailed an 1894 private preview of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, where art scholar, Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935), introduced Berenson to 12th-century Japanese and Chinese pictures. A profound ‘art experience’ followed, resulting in Berenson invoking his knowledge of Catholic liturgy in response to the Asian compositions that he considered rivalled the Venetian painters of the Renaissance. In turn, he considered this particular display a poignant manifestation of esoteric Buddhism, which became the impetus behind his own collection of 43 objects from 1909. Berenson went on to intersect colour with emotion and saw his own complex religiosity expressed in artworks that, to his mind, captured humanity’s purpose on earth and consequently ‘filled [his own] spiritual void’. His second ‘awakening’ appears in correspondence with Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840 – 1924), where Berenson described a preoccupation with the ‘Orient’ and specifically his awe of Muslim art resulting in a ‘modest sized collection’ of Persian miniatures and a large collection of reference books and photographs.

Dr Heidi Tan gave a fitting final paper which brought us more up to the modern day, by addressing a living, breathing collection of Buddhist religious art that has been accumulated through charitable gifting from devotees attending the Pagoda Museums of Myanmar. In particular, the Shwedagon Pagoda Museum in Yangon challenges today’s Western-centric idea of a museum’s art collection in itself, and instead poses the museum as a sacred space with important spiritual relics that require physical interaction. Tan discussed ongoing processes, which heavily relies upon the voluntary activities of their curators and the ritual donations of their visitors – who see their presence at the museum as a spiritual experience. The relics are thus kept in a revived and fresh state, being cleaned and re-gilded whenever the ceremony of touching these objects wares down their golden surfaces.

Each paper managed to evoke a different phase in the lifecycle of a collection. Matthew Norman first urged us to consider how physical labour behind the generation of a religious artwork can be interpreted as a celebration of piety, whereas Dr Ali Bennett traced the transatlantic movement of a collection on behalf of political agenda. Karen Winslow then broke down the consumer’s experience which nicely fed into the final analysis of a self-sufficient religious collection of today, where this lifecycle of making, acquisition, display and consumption exists every day. Methodologically speaking, each speaker first introduced a collection that, above all, materially embodied a community’s faith and identity. In turn, the audience were reminded of the origins of each religious object – which should always be centralised and considerately approached during curatorial research and dissemination. The problematic nature of representation thus emerged as a recurring theme – in essence, how does one critically engage with another’s intimacy with their god(s) without ‘othering’, as well as engaging with any socio/political/economic agendas to re-display a religious collection in an alien, or foreign environment? Yet by considering the role of an artwork or object as a facilitator of ritual and ceremony, as well as a record of a past or ongoing spiritual network, each speaker was able to follow their lines of enquiry in sensitive and refreshing ways, whilst setting a model for future micro-studies.

Victoria Jenner has recently graduated with Distinction from the University of Buckingham’s MA partnered with the Wallace Collection in Decorative Arts and Historic Interiors. Her dissertation concentrated upon the religious conversion of Lady Charlotte Anne Montagu Douglas Scott née Thynne (1811-1895) to Roman Catholicism and how this impacted the reconstruction of Montagu House, a Victorian London Town House (1863 – 1939), supervised by Dr Caroline McCaffrey-Howarth, V&A/RCA


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