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October 1991

Vol. 133 / No. 1063

Samsons and Philistines: The University Museums

THE Articles, Shorter Notices and Letter published in this issue were all written expressly to honour MichaelJaff6 on his retirement last year from the Directorship of the Fitz- william Museum, Cambridge. They represent but a pro- portion of those originally solicited for a planned Festschrift volume: we are grateful to David Scrase, Keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints at the Fitzwilliam for his editorial help.

Michael Jaff6's connexions with this Magazine span his art-historical career: since his first article was published in 1953, scarcely a year has gone by without a contribution by him in these pages on his chosen subjects of Rubens or Van Dyck, Titian or the Carracci. From 1956 to 1973 these were being composed while he was creating and building up the Department of History of Art in Cambridge, as Lecturer and then Reader. Perhaps more remarkably, the flow of articles scarcely slackened after his appointment as Director of the Fitzwilliam in 1973, a post which gave him the incidental opportunity to spot prime Van Dycks lurking as shop works in the museum store. Since his retirement, ill health has not deterred him from punishing trips to review major exhibitions.

His achievements at the Fitzwilliam are too well known to need lengthy rehearsal. His re-decoration and re- installation of the galleries in the 1970s was among the first, and remains the most successful of the 'historicising hangs', restoring the original grandeur of the building, and re-integrating painting, sculpture and the decorative arts within it. His success in making major acquisitions on an almost non-existent budget has been celebrated more than once in acquisitions supplements in this Magazine, most recently in the July 1990 issue. Perhaps his most outstanding service to the arts in Britain was the establish- ment in 1978 of the Hamilton Kerr Institute at Whittlesford, which has rapidly established a world-class reputation as a centre for the restoration of paintings and the training of conservators.

Jaff6's vision of the r6le of a university museum in the teaching of History of Art was profoundly influenced by his experiences in the United States early in his career. The example of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, where the collections were then at the core of departmental teaching were an inspiration at Cambridge - although his style of instruction in front of the works remains peculiarly his own. Many of his pupils have survived this baptism of fire and emerged to direct museums and head departments in their turn: it is a matter of particular satisfaction to him to have been succeeded at the Fitzwilliam by one of his own graduates.

Arthur James Balfour wrote in his autobiography of seeing the Fitzwilliam on his first day in Cambridge as 'a symbolic gateway to a new life'. Although curators may occasionally despair over the apparent apathy and indif- ference of the student body, the formative and transforming r61e of the university museums can be gauged by the extraordinary generosity they inspire. No visitor to the Fitzwilliam or the Ashmolean can fail to be struck by the number of objects acquired by donation - from individual items to whole collections - and we take this opportunity to reproduce on the cover of this issue one of the more spectacular items that came to the Museum in this way during the final year ofJaff6's reign.

Unfortunately, however, University Museums' success in acquisition has not been matched by help with running costs, and many now have the greatest difficulties in main- taining their buildings and keeping them open to the public. Despite the national - indeed international - importance of their collections and their r6le in their local communities, direct support from public bodies has been minimal, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, for example, is now engaged on a major funding campaign to keep its doors open. Recurrent grants in most cases come from the Universities Funding Council (the successor to the University Grants Committee) through block grants to the universities concerned, and funds for museums have never been earmarked. Successive Ministers of Education have felt no particular responsibility for them, while they fall outside the brief of the Office of Arts and Libraries. At a period of general crisis in funding, when universities are being required vastly to expand their intake with no extra public support, art collections are put under especial strain - an important test-case of this, to which we shall return in a future Editorial, is the iniquitous proposal to sell three major paintings from the founder's bequest to Royal Holloway College: the Charity Commissioners are now considering the many objections sent in response to their scheme for this disposal and the use of the resulting funds. The recent repercussions at Manchester - where a major collection of books was withdrawn from the Rylands Library after the University's decision to sell 'duplicates' - should be a potent warning against the disposal by universities of items entrusted to them for perpetual safekeeping.

Although the established university museums will never be driven to disposal, they have had to resort to such undesirable stratagems as sending fund-raising 'treasures' to exhibitions overseas which put intolerable strains on fragile objects and even the most robust curators. For a number of years the Fitzwilliam has been forced to close half its galleries by rotation on weekday mornings and afternoons. Until recently Sunday opening had been made possible by a grant from the City Council: this year three- quarters of this subvention has been cut, leaving a derisory ?5000 to compensate the Fitzwilliam for its services to the city as local museum and magnet for visitors. Ironically, the city's previous, enlightened policy had been singled out as a model by the Museums and Galleries Commission in their annual report four years ago.

The university museums will continue to battle for greater support at national and local level. In continuing the fight against the Philistines, their directors will not forget the indomitable example of MichaelJaff&.