CfP: George Scharf and the emergence of the museum professional in nineteenth-century Britain

A one-day participatory workshop concerning the emergence of the museum professional in the nineteenth-century, to be held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on Tuesday the 21st April 2015.

Current research focusing on the career of Sir George Scharf, the Gallery’s first Secretary and Director (1857-95), aims to establish his approach museum practice, the nature of his professional networks and the extent to which he collaborated with figures in the museum and wider art world.  As custodian of the national portraits, Scharf oversaw the acquisition, display, interpretation and conservation of the early collection.  He was also responsible for the establishment of a research library of engraved portraits, periodicals, books and documents.  This, coupled with his diligent research into works in numerous private collections, served as a vital resource for authenticating potential portrait acquisitions for the Gallery.  In recording what he saw by means of densely annotated sketches and detailed tracings, Scharf developed a procedure for the documentation, identification and authentication of portraiture, which continues to inform the research practice of the institution.

Short papers are invited from scholars on nineteenth-century practitioners centrally engaged in research, conservation, management or curatorship, within national or regional public galleries and museums.  Participants should consider one or both of the following:

  • Evidence of the development of professional standards within individual careers.
  • Evidence of a collective contribution to the professionalization of museum practice during a period which saw the development of a range of clearly defined, independent, professions.

Whilst the careers of figures, including Sir Henry Cole, Sir Charles Eastlake and Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, have been examined in relation to wider institutional histories and studies of the public art museum in the Victorian era, little scholarly attention has been directed towards the identity of such individuals as a discrete group of professionals or the manner in which they interacted.  To this end, presentations will be followed by a round-table discussion with reference to both the potential for collaboration between employees of different institutions, and the consolidation of museum roles throughout the 1800s.  Participants might also consider the following questions:

Did potential networks extend beyond national boundaries to include contemporaries working in European museums and galleries, and what influence did this bring to bear upon British museum practice?

What were the differing needs of individuals working in various arts institutions, and how were these met within a circle of professional contacts?

How did the role of the curator develop in the nineteenth-century and how did this job specification vary between institutions?

Considering the backgrounds, or ‘skill-sets’ of these individuals, can we pinpoint a shift from connoisseurship towards an emerging curatorship?

Please direct abstracts for a 20-minute paper (approx. 250 words) and a biographical statement (100 words) to Elizabeth Heath at, no later than Monday 15th December 2014.  Speakers will be notified in early January 2015.


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