This fascinating, complex book relies for its success on the simplest of ideas and methodologies. Its publication was the necessary and inevitable follow-on from the hugely successful BBC Radio 4 series, when, over twenty weeks, British Museum (BM) director Neil MacGregor presented short, daily radio commentaries, in thematically conceived groups of five, on one hundred objects carefully selected from the BM’s vast holdings. The fact that a regular, continuing series of radio commentaries on a group of unseen museum objects achieved such popularity – indeed, a kind of cult status – is a testament not only to MacGregor’s skills and reputation as a popular communicator, but also to the method adopted in describing and contextualising each object. It also represents a brilliant marketing coup, demonstrating what the power of the media can do to ignite new interest in what is arguably the most important collection of the material culture of mankind existing anywhere – but displayed in an institution which has traditionally been seen as very worthy and necessary (in the educational, self-improving sense), but perhaps dull. It goes without saying that such a series would never get up in contemporary Australia.
Gerard Vaughan, appointed Director of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1999, is an art historian with extensive experience within the international art and museum worlds. His research interests are particularly concerned with the history of taste and art collecting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ranging from neo-classicism to post-impressionism. He was previously director of the British Museum Development Trust and has recently been appointed Gervy Higgins Professorial Fellow in Art History at the University of Melbourne.
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December 1985–January 1986, no. 77
Images In Opposition: Australian landscape painting 1801–1890 by Tim Bonyhady