The name as a challenge – or why it is a bit too early to change MNAC’s name.
This summer’s longer piece (instead of the usual seven shots post) is about museum names. Just like people’s names, they are a link to its history, and a lead to its current place in the world. One of my preferred ones is “British Museum”, which I find rather odd, since there is little in its collections coming from Albion. In fact, most of them are inherited from Empire, as a result of sheer looting, and ruthless appropriation for some. But in some cases they were brought in in an act of rescue, and most importantly, they can work now as a tool for international dialogue. In fact, calling such a worldwide collection “British” asks for an continuous effort of openness, and wide-ranging research from that very British institution – otherwise, it would be better they just return the works, even it that means abandoning them to an uncertain fate. Not something that will happen any time soon, since the recent BM exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven. Saints, relics, and devotion in Medieval Europe (June 23th – October 9th, 2011), Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam (January 26th – April 15th, 2012) or even Shakespeare: Staging the World, (July 19th – November 25th, 2012) show its people are doing their job.
However, this effort is not always made. Without leaving London, and our field of interest, Catalan and Spanish (quite) old art, we can point to Martí de Sas and Miquel Alcanyís Saint George Altarpiece (660 cm x 550 cm, tempera and gold on pine panel, first quarter of the 15th century) in the V&A. It was a work left in oblivion since Judith Berg–Sobré’s investigations on the history of the Spanish altarpiece in 1989, until Matilde Miquel Juan, from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, came forward with an extensive article in the Spanish review Goya (“El Gótico Internacional en la ciudad de Valencia. El retablo de san Jorge del Centenar de la Ploma”, Goya, 336, 2011, pp. 191-213). In between, the V&A had not featured this major Gothic International work in any exhibition or research project.
The case with MNAC in Barcelona is similar. I hope regular readers of this blog already know what these four letters stand for, but in case your have forgotten, can you make a guess? Its current director is aware this is a tricky question, and that “Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya” might be not the first thing to come to mind. That’s why he proposed to change its name in order to make it attractive to the non-insiders. After a summer storm followed, he modulated his words, by saying that he was refereeing to the acronym MNAC, not the whole denomination, and by suggesting inserting the international magnet word “Barcelona” just in certain cases.
In my opinion, it is too early for this move. The MNAC should not to change its name, because it is not yet working as the national museum of art of Catalonia. It has all the resources to do it: a good collection, especially strong in the Romanesque, and a talented team working within its walls. But very few of their projects have had this international approach that the museum needs to work as national representative – some of the notable exceptions were “Romanesque Art and the Mediterranean. Catalonia, Toulouse and Pisa (1120 – 1180)” (February 29th to May 18th, 2008), and “Prague, Paris, Barcelona. Photographic Modernity from 1918 to 1948” (May 18th – September 12th, 2010).
How could this international message be defined? I got a first idea about it while visiting the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia, home of one of the Czech National Galleries in Prague. Its wonderful (and tourist-free) collection shows Bohemian medieval painting negotiating the French, Italian, German and Byzantine influences, to eventually give birth to something unique. In the same way, there is not a single work in the MNAC without a foreign connection. In the end, Czechs, Catalans, and many other peoples in the continent follow the same European pattern of incessant exchange. And this fact could give the basis for the MNAC’s place in the international stage: a case study of how one of these “minor” European cultures has been able to connect with its peers, both receiving huge influences and making some significant contributions.
In other words, the challenging bit of MNAC’s name is “Catalonia”, which might sound somehow enigmatic for foreigners. Using the museum collections as a tool for international dialogue could help filling the gap, while fulfilling part of MNAC’s mission. Once we all have achieved it, we could start thinking about exciting names.