Or, a newbie’s guide to preparing an exhibition
Last week I wrote about the forthcoming French Portrait Drawings show at the British Museum. Today I thought it might be fun, a few days before it opens on 8 September, to tell you a bit about the planning process from idea to installation, from a very personal point of view. The entire experience was new to me and, since many of my friends don’t seem quite sure what a curator does, I thought this might be of interest.
In August 2014 I went for a job interview at the British Museum. Climbing the steps beneath the imposing pediment was pretty intimidating, and the interview itself took place in a grand conference room with the panel seated around the far side of a vast table. As part of my preparation, I’d been asked to come up with an idea for an exhibition, using the collection. By the Friday before my interview I had three potential themes and popped into the Museum that evening to check the space before choosing the final one over the weekend. But instead, panic ensued. I realised I’d been planning for the wrong area: the gallery I needed to fill was twice the size and I had to start from scratch. I spent that weekend in hermetic isolation, barely sleeping, scrolling through the Museum’s database in an attempt to come up with a suitable idea. Fortunately, by Tuesday, the day of my interview, I had a plan: a show devoted to French portrait drawings, of which the Museum has some lovely examples, few of which had been out on display before.
To my delight and disbelief I was offered the job. Two months later, on my first day – disorientated by the sheer size of the place and waiting for my email account to be activated – I opened the department’s exhibition schedule. There, in late 2016, I spotted the words ‘French Portrait Drawings’. The idea born from my sleepless nights had suddenly taken concrete form.
THE SCOPE PAPER
The key question was whether the Museum itself would approve the exhibition idea. All exhibitions are considered very carefully by a central committee and, in order to put our case, we had to prepare a scope paper. This meant that, rather than just finding great images, I had to think carefully about the narrative structure of the exhibition, the reason I thought it would be of interest to our visitors, and to list some of the key works I wanted to show. This was a brilliant way to focus my mind. While, to me, it was self-evident that Carmontelle or Courbet was awesome, I could see that it was important to present their work as part of a wider story. Once I started looking at the works I’d chosen, that story was evident: the use of portrait drawings as a space for novelty, innovation and intimacy.
With the help of my colleagues I made refinements and got everything in order, and fortunately the paper made the grade. The exhibition plan was approved. Now we had to make it happen.
THE OBJECT LIST
Even though I’d spent a lot of time planning what to include, there came a time when we had to get everything out and actually look at it all together. As ever, a selection of drawings looks very different in the flesh than it does on paper. Certain weaknesses and strengths become more evident, and you begin to see that certain works aren’t quite as necessary as you once thought. Having taken over the entire Study Room one day, to show the selection to my colleagues, I found myself removing several drawings from the selection. It was a hard choice, but the final layout looked better for it: I realised, to my annoyance, that my initial selection had featured a disproportionate number of serious bearded men. With some of them relegated, the gender balance of sitters was a little more even and there was more visual variation.
However, the plan had always been to include examples of portraits in other media, which would help to give the drawings some historical context, and to offer yet more variety. To my excitement, this meant leaving my desk behind and going out into the Museum in search of treasures in other departments.
VISITING OTHER DEPARTMENTS
There were two departments I wanted to visit: first, Britain, Europe and Prehistory, who care for artefacts covering a dizzying period of time, from the two-million-year-old rock shaped by pre-human hominids, to contemporary Scandinavian design. Among their fabulous collections they have gorgeous Renaissance objets d’art and my colleague Dora picked out a few that she thought might fit my theme. We looked at the items together: two beautiful Limoges enamels with portraits of French kings, and a double-sided cameo, carved from onyx, showing François I on one side and his wife Eleonora of Portugal on the other. They were superb. As small-scale works made for a courtly audience, they were intended for the same audience as the Clouet portraits I’d chosen, but they belonged to a more formal, well-established tradition. They both complemented and contrasted with the Valois and early Bourbon drawings I’d picked out.
My next trip was an afternoon spent in the Coins & Medals department, where my colleagues Philip and Henry gave me access to their collection stores. I simply began with the earliest French coins and medals and worked my way through, looking out for items that would link to drawings I’d selected, or which were stunning examples of portraiture in their own right. It was the most wonderful way to spend a few hours. At the end of my trawl, I’d selected ten medals, ranging from a 1499 medal made in honour of Anne of Brittany and her husband Louis XII, to a fascinating shaped gold medal which commemorated the birth of Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome, to a splendid oversized portrait medal of Victor Hugo, made in 1884 by Jean Desiré Ringel. Fortunately all my colleagues were more than happy to let me borrow these wonderful things.
The next step was to check that what I’d chosen could actually be shown, and for that I turned to our lovely team of conservators and mounters. I gathered together all the drawings (and the few prints) and arranged to meet my colleagues in Conservation to see if they anticipated any problems. David checked the mounts, made new ones where necessary, updated the stamped names where attributions had changed and, to give him credit, wasn’t remotely fazed when I asked for a circular aperture for one drawing. Jenny, our conservator, looked through every single drawing to make sure there wasn’t anything too unstable for us to display.
Some of you might already be aware that drawings and prints are much more susceptible to light than other objects. If you come to the British Museum, you’ll see that we don’t have a permanent display of drawings. You’ll just see a changing selection of items from our collections, although of course the entire collection is available in our Study Room if you want to see something in particular. But my point is that sometimes things can’t be displayed, or sent on loan. We have very strict rules that a drawing can only be out on display for twelve months every ten years. Any longer, and the exposure to light risks damaging the drawing, whether through fading or the yellowing of the paper. Our first responsibility is to preserve these works for future generations, so if Jenny had felt anything was at risk, I would have followed her advice. But luckily she gave the all clear.
With just a few months left to go, it was time to think about publicity for the exhibition and getting the word out. We’ve created a hashtag to use on Twitter and Instagram – #FrenchPortraits, in case you’re wondering – and you can follow @britishmuseum on either platform, or @SarahVowlesBM on Twitter, to find out more and share your own thoughts on the show. There is also a dedicated webpage for the show on the British Museum’s website, where you can find out some more information.
I’ve written an article on the exhibition for the British Museum Magazine but I wanted to write something here on the blog too. Since I’ve often written about London exhibitions in the past, and many of you have shown interest, I thought it’d be rather silly not to write about a show which is so very close to my own heart.
My major task over the summer has been to get the labels ready. There isn’t a catalogue for the exhibition, so the labels are my main way to share information and new research about the drawings. I’m hugely grateful to the scholars who’ve answered my speculative emails so kindly and thoroughly, often helping me to confirm identifications of sitters or sharing their own unpublished research. I hadn’t dared hope for such generosity. In due course all this new information will be updated on the Museum’s collection database as well, so even if you can’t make it to see the exhibition, you can find out about the new developments.
Doing research for the labels was also a fine excuse to make a couple of trips. One was to the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I pored over their drawings by Louis Lafitte; and the other, slightly more exotic, was to the gorgeous Château de Chantilly, while I was in Paris on business earlier this year. Chantilly has the most amazing collection of paintings and drawings, none of which is ever lent (the foundation charter of their museum forbids it). They have an especially fabulous collection of Clouets, and another equally stunning of watercolour portraits by Louis Carmontelle. Both these artists are represented in French Portrait Drawings, as you’ll know if you’ve read my other post, and Chantilly have two drawings directly related to exhibits in the show. They have a profile portrait of Henri II, made at the same date as the three-quarter-view portrait in the British Museum, and they also have the prime version of Carmontelle’s portrait of the Mozart family. It was great to have the chance to see both in the flesh.
Once the labels were all done, proof-read and printed, I just had to wait for the final stage to get underway…
As French Portrait Drawings is a relatively small show, the installation has been pretty quick: just a couple of days. I’ve been there for all of it, watching as the show that’s been in my mind so long is translated into reality. My colleagues Charlie and Vera took care of mounting the drawings around the walls of the gallery and hanging the few framed items, including our poster boy, the wonderfully self-confident Courbet. Maria from Coins & Medals, and Lucy and Chris from Britain, Europe and Prehistory, brought over the items I’d requested from their departments and pinned them into the cases while I bustled round with the labels. The final result is very pleasing. They’ve all done such a brilliant job, and if you come to see the show, which I hope some of you will, do spare a thought for my colleagues who spent long hours wielding mounting pins and drills in order to make it all look as lovely as it does.
With the opening to the public on 8 September, much of the exhibition’s fate will be out of my hands, but there will still be a few ways for you to find out a little bit more about the objects in the show. On 25 October and 11 January I’ll be giving informal talks in the gallery, both of which will start at 13:15 and last about forty-five minutes. The talk in October will focus on the earlier half of the exhibition, ranging from the 16th to late 18th century, while that in January will look more closely at the 19th century section. Both will involve walking round and looking more closely at the objects. Alternatively, if you’d like a more general introduction and some PowerPoint slides, I’m giving a formal lunchtime lecture on 25 November in the BP Lecture Theatre, which starts at 13:30 and again lasts about 45 minutes.
I hope this has helped you to get an insight into how we go about preparing exhibitions, and how many wonderful people have contributed to the experience you’ll have if you come to visit the show. Of course, if you do come, please let us know! If you’d like to share your favourite image or story, or share the exhibition with others, just add the hashtag #FrenchPortraits and I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts.