Notes from an Exhibition: Advice from Paul Sachs

August 7, 2013
Notes from Paul Sachs’s Museum Class, February 21, 1938. Courtesy Harvard Art Museums Archives.

In 1938 Paul J. Sachs, the associate director of the Fogg Museum, gave his student curators a critique of their upcoming exhibition The Horse: Its Significance in Art. The exhibition was part of Sachs’s museum course that covered all aspects of museum work and practice, providing training for scores of future museum directors, curators, and connoisseurs. In this document dug up from our Archives, which details his critique (prepared with the help of “Miss Berg’s shorthand”), we’re reminded of the complex thinking that goes into preparing an exhibition—how to show artworks, what to show, and how to experiment with possible installations—issues our curators have considered while choosing the objects that will populate our new galleries when we open in fall 2014.

Here is a sampling of Sachs’s critique:

Of the paintings represented, ten or twelve were distinguished works of art, the rest hardly that. The truly significant ones are the paintings by Sassetta, Titian, Englebrechtsen, Goya, Gericault, Degas, Manet, Ryder, Toulouse-Latrec, and Daumire. The English school presents a difficult problem, and the works selected should measure in quality with the other works selected . . .

We should not confine ourselves exclusively to paintings. We should look into the question of prints and drawings which will help to shape up the exhibition . . . The Meissonier type of painting might be better presented by a fine drawing or watercolour, as might be Rosa Bonheur.

Of the other paintings presented, the early American problem might be solved more successfully by consulting Richard Morrison before writing for the Whitney Museum painting. A small Benton would be much better than a Remington. Our Chirico is not the best available one. Dufy paves the way for drawings.

We are not taking into account the size of the rooms at our disposal. With cases of objects, and photographs, the amount of paintings we wish to select is too large. We must be careful not to overcrowd.

In hanging the show, let one person take the responsibility, and he may call in all the help that is necessary, but to have more than one person is disastrous.

Begin to play with photographs on the wall or along the floor and see how the show shapes up. Then get leads on other things without committing yourselves.

Visit our Flickr page to see a larger image of the document.