This number of the JOURNAL calls attention to some of the ancient thoughts and ancient works of man in the Far East and in the Nearer East, as these thoughts and works are represented in the Chinese collections and in the Babylonian collections of the Museum. The papers dealing with Chinese Art are illustrated by examples recently acquired. The contributions that bear upon ancient Babylonian life and times are based on tablets which, stored in the Babylonian Section of the Museum, have been for years, though entirely unknown, accessible to students and are now for the first time brought to light by two of the world’s greatest Babylonian scholars, eminently qualified for this particular task.
These latter contributions are together indicative of well-considered steps that have been wisely taken to bring into line with its growing activities in other directions, that Section of the Museum which, for a long time, has been inert.
The papers that deal with Chinese Art may be regarded as an indication of recent progress made by the Museum in a particular direction. This progress is gratifying in itself and, taken in connection with the increasing difficulties that wait upon Museum workers, shows a growth that is larger both relatively and absolutely than that of any former year.
Of greater national moment than any local success, is the fact that American museums have, during the first year of the country’s experience of war, shown a growth and prosperity that prove they are able and willing, notwithstanding the sacrifices they are called upon to make, to go forward with their legitimate work in time of war. The Metropolitan Museum, which may be taken as a leading example, shows in its Annual Report for 1917 that twenty-four of its staff are serving in the Army and Navy and that notwithstanding this fact, combined with increased costs and unusual demands, the growth of the collections made the year a memorable one in the history of the Metropolitan Museum, and that a large increase in its membership, following the net gains of the year before, registers a steady growth.
The University Museum, which has four of its small staff of Curators serving in the Army and Navy, and which had to meet, in common with other institutions, increased costs and heavy demands, is able to show for the year 1917 a large increase in its collections, but, on the other hand, it is obliged to recognize a falling off in the membership. This fact is the more regrettable, because in an institution like the Museum, the membership is not only a source of income but also a very important moral asset.
In speaking of the increased difficulties of museum administration and increased demands upon museum workers it is necessary to call attention to a condition that is characteristic of the time, namely a scarcity in the world’s markets of the art objects upon which the constructive work of museums is dependent. This is the situation with regard to good examples of every kind that illustrate the history of the arts and that go to make up the educational structure of Museum exhibits. Together with this scarcity we are witnessing a rapidly growing interest in these things and an increased demand for art objects on the part of museums and private collectors everywhere. That this condition should be brought about by the war is very natural and might have been forecast, although nearly everyone interested in such matters predicted the opposite result.
Among the obvious reasons for this state of things is the increased estimation in which the best products of civilization have come to be held since they have been viewed in connection with forces that threaten their destruction. Men have been given standards of comparison never before vouchsafed them by which to measure the relative values of earthly things. Hence our inheritance in the material evidence of spiritual things is more jealously guarded than ever before. Economic causes have also contributed to the same result. Values represented by works of art are not subject to taxation and these values are constantly increasing. Still another reason is the growing need for aesthetic recreation, a need which makes itself felt today as never before. This feeling is strongly evinced in the reaction of many minds to the pressure of distress which is so great and so general at this time. The restful and soothing message delivered to us from the past in the inarticulate terms of art is now sought at home by people who, having enjoyed the means of travel, were accustomed, before the war imposed its barrier, to take their rest and recreation among the art collections in the public and private galleries of Europe.
There are doubtless other contributing causes to a condition which, if it puts a greater tax upon the powers and resources of public museums, nevertheless reveals one of the good tendencies of our time. The growth of interest in art and in whatever pertains to its history is altogether a hopeful tendency arising from good motives associated with the highest duties of the day in which we live.
Writing in 1916 I called attention to the indispensable position occupied by European museums and to their general recognition as national assets of a high order in a great emergency. What was observed at that time has been reinforced by subsequent events in Europe and in the United States. These events have served not to modify my views but to confirm my impressions. One of the simple lessons for today is that men and nations need the sustenance of Art and that meat and drink can not save the world from hunger. It is true that the first duty of the day is concerned with the winning of the war. If we do that duty well, and if we render loyal service to those who will come after us and to those who went before we will not allow our world to be given up entirely to the gross materialism that is on the other side of this warlike shield. If we worthily perform our task in the world war we will perform it without losing our interest in the things that make it worth while to contemplate the restoration of Peace.
G. B. G.