"The museum has been very generous!"

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"The museum has been very generous!" It is not uncommon to hear this phrase from exhibition curators to point out that this or that important work has been loaned, or that many of the objects on display come from the same museum.
But museums are not generous, and even less so their curators, because they lend to exhibitions. Contrary to what some seem to think - not all of them, fortunately, far from it - curators are in no way the owners of the collections in their care. They have a public service mission to conserve the works - this is the basis of their profession - but also to make them available to the public as much as possible and to facilitate research.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
Shah Jahan on Horseback
with a Falcon
, c. 1656-1661
(drawing not loaned to the exhibition Rembrandt and the inspiration of India at the Getty Museum)
Pen, brown ink and brown wash - 21.9 x 19.2 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo: RMN-GP
See the image in its page

There are only a few reasons for refusing a loan: either there is no interest in the borrowing museum’s exhibition - this happens - or there is no justification for displaying the work there, or the work is in a state of conservation that formally prohibits it from being transported, or lastly it has already been requested for another exhibition at the same period. Of course, there may be other justifications, such as the impossibility of exhibiting a drawing for more than three months every three years, or the fact that too many loans have already been made for the same work, which prompts caution (it is obvious, for example, that some Caravaggio paintings travel too much, which is risky for their conservation)...

One of the reasons sometimes given, that this would deprive the lending museum of a major work in its collection, may be acceptable in some cases, but is often much more debatable, as it is rare for the public to travel to a museum for a specific work, with the exception of the few masterpieces in its collection, which must nevertheless be loaned for exhibitions with a real purpose.

In short, a curator can refuse to lend, but if he does so, he is not being ’generous’. He is helping to disseminate the heritage he conserves and enabling his colleagues to work and advance the history of art, while at the same time giving another audience access to his own museum’s collections. Once again, he is simply doing his job.

A curator who refuses to lend a work for imaginary reasons (how many works that are "too fragile to travel" end up being lent out on any number of occasions, sometimes for cash?), on a whim or because it allows him to demonstrate his own power, is not being ungenerous, he is being unprofessional. All those who read these lines and who work in museums know this kind of character, we do not need to mention them here, we have already done so on certain occasions...

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