Museum parties: balls, dances, conferences and the great and the good
I have been doing some work in the archives of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and particularly the nineteenth-century history of the place (on which more later). But a very quick trawl produces some eye-opening surprises.
I had always imagined that the idea of holding parties in museums was an invention of (well?) the 1970s. It was, I thought, a consequence of the underfunding of museums, with an added push from a Thatcherite business ethic. Indeed, when the Greeks objected in the 1990s to the British Museum serving sandwiches in front of the Elgin Marbles, I gave them the benefit of the doubt -- that the British practice of eating and drinking in front of works of art might actually be new.
I have no idea what happened in the BM in the nineteenth century. But in Cambridge, in the Fitzwilliam, the practice of museum hospitality goes back to before the Museum was fully built.
In July 1842, even before the building was finished, there was a grand royal ball in the shell of the Museum. In addition to a clutch of London royalty, who presumably came "free", 1750 tickets were sold in aid of the (then) nearby Addenbrookes Hospital -- dancing went on all night, till 6.00 a.m., and the next morning the loyal hoi polloi were let in to see the detritus for 2s 6d. It was obviously a pretty glamorous occasion (the walls were hung with bunting and other material in red and white stripes) -- but not without its dangers: the Illustrated London News reported that the hundreds of candles hung about the place dropped their wax onto the bare shoulders of the ladies, and made a real mess of the men's suits.
But the tradition went on. There was another big-shot gala (this time with the pictures fully installed) in 1864; and a gala lunch provided in the galleries again in 1904 when the King and Queen were in town, not to mention the regular honorary degree lunches too. But there were also rather more cerebral occasions.
By the end of the nineteenth-century conferences in Cambridge (and who is one day going to write a history of "the conference"?) were having conversazioni (plus music and a good deal of refreshment) in the Museum. In 1899, for example, the National Union of Teachers showed up for a reception, with some nice autograph copies of music specially laid out for them to enjoy, in between the Egyptian sarcophagi and the Greek marbles in the basement. A few years earlier, in 1896, there had been a conversazione at a conference on secondary education -- with an on the spot demonstration of Roentgen Rays!
Actually the tradition continues. We are arranging a big Classics Conference for next year -- and guess where we are having the reception?