Ethics and the Angelica Garnett Gift

by charlestonattic

Opening up the boxes that contain the Angelica Garnett Gift is to gain a very personal insight into the lives of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.  By revealing and singling out for conservation, photography, cataloguing, digitisation and research these various sketchbooks and supporting works they become available for contemplation, thought, future study and display. Yet presenting for public availability the written and drawn relics of the Bloomsbury group has important consequences that requires careful ethical consideration.

The Gift contains private material by both Grant and Bell. As can be seen below this includes personal notes and erotic art that we know were not intended by the artists for public viewing. This raises the question of how respect for the dead is mediated with the necessity of accessibility for the collection.

CHA-P-851-R - ethics blog 1

CHA/P/851. Sketch of two males, Duncan Grant, date unknown. ©The Charleston Trust.

CHA-P-619-13 ethics 2

CHA/P/619/13. Sketchbook, Duncan Grant, date unknown, various abstract designs and miscellaneous writings, pencil on paper, bound in blue card. 21.7 cm x 13. 8 cm. ©The Charleston Trust.

Museum ethics are an expression of social responsibility, a means of developing constructive relationships with those who have lived before us. Thus as we sift through the drawings, sketchbooks and paintings of the Angelica Garnett Gift, uncovering the intensely personal fragments of the lives therein, we are mindful of balancing the interests of these artists with the importance of our own historical research.

For our work in the attic at Charleston this manifests in two significant ways; firstly to abide by professional ethical museum standards, namely values such as honesty and accountability as well as adhesion to best museum practice. Secondly is the moral aspect; as curatorial trainee one is given a unique privilege in facilitating access to this incredible archive. With that responsibility comes the necessity of respect for these works and a developed sense of empathy for the needs and wishes of the people behind their creation.[1]

[1] For further reading on museum ethics, see: Marstine, J., (ed). 2011. The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum. London and New York: Routledge.