The DNA of Museums

Jan 06, 2020
DNA of Museums

Exploring the historical make-up of museum and gallery collections around the world.

Museums provide us with a fantastic opportunity to connect with the local culture and history of our chosen destination. But how many of the paintings, artefacts and sculptures on display originate from that country? And specifically, in British museums and galleries, how many works are actually British?

For example, the Parthenon Marbles are housed in the British Museum but originally made up part of a 2,500-year-old temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, in Greece. The Mona Lisa is housed in the Louvre in Paris, but Leonardo da Vinci was from Italy and the Water Lily Pond is housed in the MET in New York, but Claude Monet was from France.

To find out, we set about analysing the online collection and exhibition data for all the works in the publically-accessible digital databases of nine major cultural attractions around the world to understand where the majority of artefacts originate from, what proportion of the exhibits are homegrown, and how many works have come from further afield.

Our study revealed that British museums and galleries held just 8% of pieces from the UK, on average, with the rest of their collections made up from around the world. Of the four we analysed, the V&A was home to the most British works of all, making up almost one third of the entire collection (30%), whereas the National Gallery, British Museum and National Museum of Scotland all had less than 2%.

In fact, the lack of homegrown artefacts was a common trend with eight of the nine museums in our study showcasing less than 45% of works from the home country.

The Mori Art Museum was the only anomaly, with 60% of works originating from Japan. 44% of the works in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid were from Spain and The Victoria & Albert Museum in London’s Kensington and Chelsea had the third largest heritage collection, with one third of its works created in the UK.

Despite the name, the country most thoroughly represented in the British Museum is Greece (22%), and in the National Gallery almost half of works were by Italian artists (44%).

In the works we analysed from the National Museum of Scotland, none of them were from Scotland specifically and only half a percent were from the UK. Instead just over 10% of pieces were from China and a further 10% of pieces from Japan.

Looking to our neighbours on the other side of the channel, the highest proportion of works in The Louvre come from France (31%), paying tribute to the country’s artistic heritage, followed by almost one in five works (18%) from Egypt.

New York’s MET Museum had less specific categorisation by origin compared to many of the institutions in our study, often labelling artefacts and artwork by continent rather than country, which showed that most of the works (22%) were from unspecified countries in Europe. Pieces from the USA made up the second largest proportion at roughly one in ten items (11%).

Interestingly, in the Guggenheim almost half of works originated from Spain (47%), with homegrown pieces from the USA coming in second at 19%.

Beyond the 60% of Japanese works on show at the Mori Art Museum, pieces from other countries each make up less than 10% but with a large focus on art from within Asia.

At Barratt London, we celebrate what history and heritage brings to our local communities and this research shows that London museums have it in abundance.

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