Private and institutional collecting

Institutional collecting – donors and curators

Museums, educational institutions and commercial/ governmental bodies engage in collecting this is intertwined with institutional histories and purposes. Public museums vary in their complexity from the encyclopedic New York Metropolitan to the small museum dedicated to ZHAO Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1254–1322) in his native town of Huzhou. Other museums celebrate the broad collecting culture of a city and its historic elite, such as the Capital Museum in Beijing or the Suzhou Museum.

By contrast, university museums - like libraries and repositories of natural history - often gather art as a kind of evidence, and interpret it within a larger project of research into historic, social and cultural experience. And as modern universities espouse the case of liberal education, they also offer art as a valued cultural experience per se, taking on the task of transmitting cultural values that was formerly restricted to private privilege. This liberating and democratic purpose also has informed many public museums and is a frequent reason given for free access – in contrast to other ‘amusements’ or discretionary choices citizens may make.

Private enterprises collect in ways that reflect their history and operations. In emergent companies where owner/ founders play a major role, collecting may differ little from private practice, though it may also express a social or cultural vision that the enterprise aspires to (this is strongly seen in the collecting of religious organizations, such as that of Japanese ‘new religions’.) In the case of stock-held corporations with professional managers, collecting may be part of a programme of corporate communication and social responsibility or undertaken with concern for the working environment of employees (though stockholders are usually also reminded that such collecting is canny investment too.) In the case of some Chinese institutional collecting, artworks may project a public image of engagement with some aspect of culture, or express a patriotic position (for example, the Poly Group’s Beijing art museum which showcases works bought so as to ‘to rescue and protect Chinese cultural relics lost abroad’.)



Heads of zodiac animals
from the Yuan Ming Yuan garden
Bronze, 18th century
Taken from China by British and French
troops in 1860 and recently repatriated
Poly Group museum, Beijing
Photo 2010


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