When Carnegie Museum of Art was founded in 1895 with the ambition of collecting international contemporary art, the art under consideration was almost entirely from Europe and North America. As a result, the museum’s holdings from before World War II are largely Western. There are, however, significant exceptions; for example, the museum owns nearly 3,000 Japanese prints made between around 1200 and the present.
In addition, deep within our permanent collection galleries is a series of long, narrow rooms that house works from China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, all of it grouped under the rubric “Art before 1300.” David T. Owsley, CMOA’s curator of decorative arts from 1968 to 1978, collected much of this material, including many of the museum’s most significant examples of non-Western art. Owsley’s desire to broaden our holdings was noble but unsustainable because it (like the Japanese print collection, which came to the museum largely from a single collector, James Bliss Austin, in the 1980s) was based on the passionate interests of one individual. With few exceptions, Owsley’s departure marked the end of the museum’s active engagement with non-Western and ancient art.
Today, as I wander through those galleries, I’m confronted by a dizzying hodgepodge of cultural artifacts. I start with the monumental Head of Guanyin of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty (1279–1360) and then, moving backward in time, find art of a very different kind from India; then it’s back to China, then India again, then Egypt, then ancient Rome, then India, then China, etc. So many of these works have no obvious kinship, their placement in the gallery simply a function of the date they were made. The display could perhaps be used to compare and contrast the artistic production of different civilizations during various historical eras, but the lack of didactic information renders those relationships invisible. (The rest of the collection is also organized strictly chronologically, but only rarely is it as confusing as in these galleries, with their head-spinning shifts in culture.)
Since Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History have the most significant holdings in town of art from these times and cultures (CMNH’s works in these fields belong to its anthropology collection), we need to make them available to visitors in a comprehensible way. Studying them in order to understand the nature and extent of their value will enable us to decide what works to keep and what to deaccession, and how we can meaningfully interpret the art that remains with us. Chinese and Indian art specialists have said that we have some significant Chinese objects, not all of them on view, and that our 13th-century Indian bronze Shiva is very good. We know that our African nail figure, made when the Congolese people were still tribal, is important.
Over the next few years, we will engage scholars in these fields to help us further assess our collections. This long-term process has already begun, focusing first on our African objects. In June, CMNH invited an anthropologist with expertise in Africa to survey their collection and ours; this month, a historian of African art will do the same. The end result—the rethinking, reconfiguring, and reinstalling of these galleries—is part of a plan for a general rehanging of the collections that will begin in 2012. It will proceed in stages over several years, ending with our African, East Asian, and Southeast Asian collections. Our overall goal is to utilize up-to-the-minute scholarship and the highest professional standards to present the museum’s finest works in an understandable and visually engaging way.
Inside the Museum will be on hiatus next month. I’ll be back in October.