Don’t mention the M-word

Don’t mention the M-word


If you happen to find yourself in Derbyshire, England, awkwardly making small talk with the 12th Duke of Devonshire in his private apartments at Chatsworth, his inherited estate, here’s a piece of traveler’s advice: don’t refer to his home as a museum.

One could be forgiven for being confused. Nineteen pounds gets you through Chatsworth’s massive, riveted front door, after which you can admire a series of galleries filled with extraordinary collections of classical and contemporary art, furniture, and decorative objects with or without the aid of an audio guide. When you’re tired, exit through the gift shop into a courtyard café for a cup of tea.

But as the Duke gently made clear, Chatsworth is a country house that happens to be open to the public.

At the Barnes Foundation we don’t use the M-word either, and after visiting Chatsworth and over thirty other country houses over the course of an eighteen-day program with the Attingham Summer School, the distinction between a museum and a private collection open to the public is clearer to me.

Like the Barnes, institutions like Chatsworth chronicle the tastes and collecting habits of an individual or a family in a personal setting. Objects are arranged in an individualized, sometimes idiosyncratic way, and the presence of the collector is strongly felt, whether the person is still actively involved or has been gone for decades or even centuries. The requirements for visitors to a country house can be somewhat demanding. There usually isn’t much in the way of interpretive panels and placards, nor is there any kind of signage that explicitly notes the significance of what is on view. After all, it’s not a museum.

Room 18, Barnes Foundation
The Barnes Foundation

Exquisite taste was everywhere at Chatsworth, and at most of the other country houses I visited. A huge Hockney painting of a California swimming pool would be placed next to a Gainsborough portrait, under which a collection of contemporary Japanese ceramic vases stood on an 18th-century Boulle commode, all somehow communicating together and creating a sum more magnificent than its parts.

I imagined being the Duke, living among the most precious, rare, and beautiful objects in the world from the first day of life. Other family members would have passed along many generations of acquired insight and knowledge on themes of beauty, art, and culture, as well as the financial resources with which to pursue further appreciation and acquisition.


And then I imagined Dr. Barnes. Raised in a working-class family with no documented interest in art or aesthetics, he began collecting in earnest in his forties after making a fortune in pharmaceuticals. Aided by artist friends such as William Glackens, Barnes put himself through a rigorous path of self-study, learning about philosophy and art as well as developing his own theories on aesthetics.

Comparatively, the Barnes collection might seem less refined that those of the great English country houses. And it’s somehow more fundamentally American in nature. But after seeing so many examples of this kind of collection, I find the Barnes less quirky than it used to seem. For such an iconoclast, Albert Barnes wasn’t inventing the wheel when he began assembling art and objects; not unlike the Duke of Devonshire, he was following a long-established intellectual and aesthetic tradition.

Let us know what other institutions remind you of the Barnes in the comments section below.

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