On a recent visit to the British Museum with my Antiquities and the Law course, a classmate and I decided to check out the Prints and Drawings Department. According to their website, “The collection covers the history of drawing and printmaking as fine arts [from the fifteenth century up to the present day], with large holdings of the works of important artists such as Dürer, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt and Goya.” With approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints, the department is home to one the finest collections of this kind in the world. Not knowing this at the time, we entered the Prints and Drawings Study Room literally just to see if we could get in.
Sure enough, with only a photo ID we were able to access the Study Room and all of its resources. We used a computer to search the collection’s database (not that intuitive actually) and, after realizing we had no particular work in mind, requested to see Francesco Bartolozzi’s The Last Judgment. The print came in a large folio with about six other Last Judgments, all done after Michelangelo’s original. The works were beautiful and centuries-old and, yes, fragile. Yet we were able to view and handle these pieces, and any others, for as long as we liked, all without the supervision of a department worker.
Such free and open interaction with this extraordinary collection–the Study Room is available to anyone–got me thinking about universal museums and their accessibility to the public at large. To say nothing of the complex issues surrounding museum collecting ethics, and especially of the practices of museums like the BM, I think it is quite incredible to have these collections available to us, the public. I think it is important that any person of society, granted s/he has proper identification, could access the works held in this or any museum study room. My classmate and I were not looked down upon for lacking a research project that required use of the collection, nor did we feel out of place for not knowing first what we wanted to see. The department workers sensed our curiosity and, from what I could tell, were eager to see that we were not treated like distractions to those who had actual research to do. They were even trustful enough to know we would handle the works with the utmost care.
In this regard, museums should not be viewed as so elitist and restricted to scholars alone. Art and antiquities are not just subject to study by people with academic degrees; as the saying going, “Life is better when there’s art.” As I learned from my brief experience in the Prints and Drawings Study Room, museums can easily be egalitarian, democratic, and open to all tiers of society, if one knows how and where to look. Given that these works are the products of our shared cultural heritage, it would be wrong to cast people aside and disallow them access for any reason. The accessibility to a rare Michelangelo drawing can turn even the most uneducated, “uncultured” person into an avid art critic in his/her own right. It is just such exposure to new objects and ideas that ideally can inform people as to their species’ rich, diverse cultural legacy.
I recommend visiting the study rooms or research libraries next time you are at a large museum. It is an interesting way to see objects that are otherwise never on display, and this interaction can honestly make you feel like you have exclusive, intimate interaction with a priceless artifact.