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Cultural Capital: Soane Museum selling off the family silver?

Set against the bleak economic landscape, museum brands are traded as readily as currencies. James Haldane reports on the Sir John Soane Museum licensing its collection

It’s difficult to imagine that John Soane was much troubled by self-doubt. A perpetual provocateur in life, he had a clear vision for his legacy in death. Central to this was the preservation of his collection, an unparalleled hoard of architectural drawings and fragments amassed over decades in his London home. The architect was so invested in its significance that, in 1833, he had a special Act of Parliament passed to entrust his house and its contents to the nation that it might continue to inspire and educate. It’s a noble legacy no doubt, but one that today compels his museum to plan for an uncertain future amid the austerity politics of post-crash Britain.

In response, the museum recently announced Inspired by Soane: Brand Licensing, a new programme of commercial partnerships aimed at maximising profit from the collection. From replica fireplaces to wallpaper designs and garden ornaments, they’ll have you covered. While I have no doubt these repro lines will prove popular with the ‘shabby chic’ set, what are those of us without a World of Interiors subscription to make of the scheme? Aside from highlighting the market boom in cultural branding, is this a sustainable model for funding public museums or is the Soane Museum selling off the family silver too readily?

There’s a particular irony to Soane’s contemporary cult following. During his life, despite a number of major commissions, admirers were thin on the ground. In a speech given only weeks after the architect’s funeral, the secretary of the newly formed RIBA defamed him as guilty of ‘many aberrations of genius’. Objecting to Soane’s wilful subversion of the canonical regulations of neo-classicism, Thomas Leverton Donaldson accused him of making a recurrent ‘attempt at [securing] effect by ignoble means’. Strong stuff for 1837, even if architectural criticism has since become rather spikier.

Mouth of Truth Mask, Haddonstone, £295

Mouth of Truth Mask, Haddonstone, £295

Of course, history – or rather, historiography – has done Soane a great favour. During his tenure as keeper of the museum, historian John Summerson succeeded in rebranding him from Regency reject to proto-modern poster boy. While that erroneous depiction is a matter for another day, it gets one closer to explaining why an individual might wish to spend over £4,000 on a Chesney’s replica fireplace from Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane is the Establishment’s anti-establishment hero – architectural history’s enfant terrible, to ape a hackneyed rhetoric. The purchase of one of these licensed projects is therefore the signifier of a sanctioned ‘radicalism’, an insider’s nod.  

These criticisms are, I’ll admit, low-hanging fruit. The museum is in a tough spot. Not only is its government support dwindling, the funds it does receive seem to come with ever more tangled strings. The Soane’s predicament is indeed a microcosm for the problems faced by museums and galleries around the world. The situation in the United States, where questions of donor intent have fed a recent bout of high-profile litigation, forewarns of the perils. What most museums need is a boost in unrestricted funding.

Fortunately in this case, there’s a lot that can be done, and the recent appointment of new director Abraham Thomas seems to be accelerating the necessary transitions. Although it’s difficult to predict how many more licensing deals might be arranged in the future, there is scope for the initiative to deliver a steady and significant income. Last year, the Soane earned only £2,000 from licensing deals – roughly 10 per cent of the museum’s income from publications. There’s clearly no doubt then this is a revenue stream beseeching expansion.

‘Curating is today a more political exercise than ever. Its duty is as much to future generations as the past, but preservation means more than keeping the rain out’

The paramount concern therefore becomes the management of these commercial relationships. John Soane’s collection and its connoisseurial integrity are, after all, the qualities underpinning the scheme’s brand value. In light of this, two details of Inspired by Soane stand out as particularly troublesome. The first is that its partners have apparently been granted ‘special access to the Museum’s collections and archives, as well as the use of our research services’. Although this means much less in real terms than might appear at first glance, it’s surely a faux pas for one of the nation’s most treasured public museums boasting of its exclusivity deals with commercial bedfellows. The mixed message is incongruous and, like a disingenuous husband acquiring a young floozy, looks very bad in polite company.

The second issue stems from the fact that the museum has decided to extend the licensing venture to include works by other designers. Ossowski, a London dealer in 18th-century mirrors, has for example been sold the rights to reproduce a mirror by Robert Adam. How is that possible? Before his death, Soane managed to acquire over 80 per cent of Adam’s surviving drawings, including hundreds of mirror designs in his signature ritzy style. Holdings of this kind are what make Soane’s personal archive so remarkable, but to include them in this scheme suggests that mercenary desperation has outweighed good sense. Drawings by Robert and James Adam have been similarly flogged to tie maker Fox & Chave for conversion into silken neck ornaments. Such off-piste imaginings represent a more exploitative plundering. As anyone who has read their Benjamin or Berger will attest, reproduction is the death of a work’s contextual meaning – just ask the Mona Lisa.

Soane Caryatid Statue, Haddonstone, £3,995

Soane Caryatid Statue, Haddonstone, £3,995

Of course, we mustn’t forget that the neo-classicists of Soane’s age were themselves copyists extraordinaire. My qualms are not to be mistaken for the sniffy cultural superiority that often encroaches upon discussions of this kind. Nevertheless, the museum has stated that it expects overseas markets to represent a large proportion of Inspired by Soane sales. This reminder of the contemporary inversion of economic fortunes and Orientalist collecting habits will no doubt awaken cultural anxiety across the Home Counties.

Yet the term ‘cultural capital’ was appropriated some time ago. Today museum brands are traded as readily as currencies. Under construction at present is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the product of an agreement between L’Agence France-Muséums and the UAE government. The Louvre name has been licensed out for 30 years at a price of $520m – enough to make the Jean Nouvel-designed building appear a snip at $108m. At least in the case of the Soane, it’s self-determination. For the Louvre, an edict came down from on high (the then President Jacques Chirac) around the same time that the UAE was buying 40 Airbus 380s and $10.4 billion worth of arms from France.

While imitation may remain the sincerest form of flattery, the Soane Museum is wading into murky waters. Its duty is as much to future generations as the past, but preservation means more than keeping the rain out – it’s about protecting the integrity of a collection. Still, set against the bleak economic landscape, curating is today a more political exercise than ever. Perhaps if the museum is able to demonstrate a tangible pay-off in the near future then this sacrifice will be judged worthwhile. Yet there’s a saddening feeling of déjà vu to see Soane’s generous legacy once more reduced to money. It recalls again his contemporaries’ grasping sneers. In all his hollow memorial address, the only intact compliment Donaldson was willing to raise to Soane in death was ‘as a benefactor of this Institute’. How much has changed since?

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