Until the 1990s, provenance research, or the history of ownership, was mainly conducted to determine the attribution and authenticity of an artwork. Provenance research grew significantly after the Washington Principles of 1998 and the accompanying increased awareness of the issues surrounding Holocaust-era art theft in Europe. Museums are also committed to documenting transfers of ownership of an object to avoid cultural patrimony issues related to questionably exported antiquities and colonial-era acquisitions.
Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) was a young student at the University of Munich when Johann von Spix and Carl Friedrich von Martius returned from their expedition to Brazil. Among the many items and specimens the German naturalists brought back were fish. The methodology they had followed on their journey through what was then part of the Portuguese Empire was typical of naturalists in the field: They observed, collected, and in some cases classified. Then, back in Europe, they studied the amassed material. Their journey through the exuberant and unfamiliar natural environment had lasted three years (1817–1820). In this geographical and temporal context, the fish and marine species were rarities that few scientists could address with authority within the framework of European natural history. The observant naturalists were nonetheless able to classify species unknown in Europe while also learning about these species’ natural environments.
As art objects circulate over time, they connect various people, places, times, stories, and even historiographies. Although they cannot speak to us directly about their biographies, we can still interrogate them and related evidence in order to learn more about who once possessed them and where and how they were kept. As we do this, we can draw on the concept of circulation to direct scholarly attention toward how not only objects but also knowledge about them moves. Objects, knowledge, and their significance for those involved is continuously circulated and negotiated, yielding new knowledge and meaning in the process. Thus, we might endeavor to elaborate both the spatial and temporal dimensions of provenance research as integral parts of contemporary art history.
In 1908, The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased from the French art dealer Kleinberger Galleries a sixteenth-century portrait believed to be that of Johann, Duke of Saxony, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The Museum’s paintings curator, Roger Fry, had learned of the availability of this little-known work by the German Renaissance master late in 1907, and through correspondence with Kleinberger confirmed its provenance and attribution, which were attested by the eminent art historians Max Friedländer and Wilhelm von Bode. The picture crossed the Atlantic on the Courraine, arrived at the Met on February 3, and was installed in its galleries soon after. It was the first work by Cranach the Elder in the Metropolitan’s collection.
Where is the object from? Who did it belong to? How did it enter the collection? Nowadays, hardly any curator can avoid dealing with these questions before exhibiting or acquiring works of art or other cultural objects. Provenance has become an essential factor for public acceptance of the legitimacy of holdings in national museum collections worldwide as a consequence of two broad trends. On the one hand, a broad consensus on Nazi-confiscated art was reached in 1998 and expressed in the Washington Principles. On the other hand, there have been numerous heated public debates in recent years about the unlawful or unfair appropriation of cultural assets and the possible restitution of such items.1 Concern about the origins of objects is growing for libraries and archives too. Thus, provenance research has become a globally sought-after discipline.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 excited curiosity in nineteenth-century contemporaries and continues to garner interest among scholars today. Attracting some six million visitors and comprising over 100,000 exhibits that filled 76,720 square meters of exhibition space, it entered media, memory, and historiography as an emblem of British industrial capabilities, free-trade ideology, and imperial globalization. Yet it is seldom discussed in relation to the consequential contemporaneous transformation of modern sciences into a set of powerful, highly institutionalized social practices.
Writing in 1849 from their Admiralty chambers right off of Whitehall, the Lords Commissioners of the Royal Navy issued a simple memorandum to introduce their new Manual of Scientific Enquiry, a mutable collecting reference reworked and reissued six more times over the course of the century. “Their Lordships do not consider it necessary that this Manual should be one of very deep and abstruse research,” they noted, arguing that “its directions should not require the use of nice apparatus and instruments: they should be generally plain, so that men merely of good intelligence and fair acquirement might be able to act upon them; yet, in pointing out objects, and methods of observation and record, they might still serve as a guide to officers of high attainment.” Pointing to what they considered the most important areas of research conducted overseas, the Lords Commissioners tasked fifteen of Britain’s top men of science with writing short, simple, and clear instruction booklets for naval officers, sailors, surgeons, and those elusive “professional collectors” on how and what to observe while safely bringing specimens (living and dead), notes, and records back home.
Historical museum guidebooks mediate an associative network of ideas, writings, artefacts, and people. Piecing together these contingent and ephemeral encounters, and parsing original work from posthumous orders and emendation, is a difficult task that poses a number of questions. What determines how visitors move through museum spaces? Whose voices lead and regulate? Who watches?
Knowledge is not a static entity. It is not obtained by discovering universal truths. Instead, it is a process of creation and simultaneously an outcome. It is mediated, socially (re)defined, and accepted or rejected. It always contains an underlying sense of rationality, however understood, and is dependent on temporal and spatial contexts. This dynamic image of knowledge is not new, but how can it be reflected in a museum? How can the diverse factors and layers of knowledge production be made explicit in order to go beyond the mediation of factual information to the visitor? In addition, how can visitors themselves actively engage in a way that takes the dynamics of knowledge formation seriously? Finally, how can the museum bring academic and public knowledge creation together?