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Seeing is Believing

Art historian and museologist Julian Spalding finds nothing to beat looking carefully at historic objects in their original surroundings.

When I first saw the Pyramids I could have kicked myself. It wasn’t that I was disappointed – far from it. What I was annoyed about was that I hadn’t been to see them before. I thought I knew them. I’d read everything I could about them, and was so familiar with pictures of them, that I thought seeing them in the flesh would have nothing more to tell me. How wrong I was; they were a revelation.

I really don’t know why I was surprised. I’d gone into museums after university and art college because I wanted to see (and handle!) real artefacts. I didn’t think I had enough to say to become an artist (though I now think I was a victim of the times in making this decision so soon) and I didn’t want to spend my life lecturing with slides in darkened rooms. If I was going to work with art, I wanted to work with real art, not reproductions, and with art’s widest possible audience not with those who wanted to study it for degrees.

So I went into museums and learnt to appreciate how the treasures in them had been actually made (almost all by hand) – something it’s difficult to do when looking at a photograph. This at once demystifies these objects and increases one’s admiration for them. To see the chisel marks on the face of an Easter Island ancestral god, for example, brings the image down to earth, but also makes you aware of the love and imagination that went into its making.

The more I looked at objects in museums, the more aware I became of the people who had made them, and the more I thought about what they were thinking when they did so. I tried to see what they were doing through their eyes. It was then that I began to realize that many of the wonderful artefacts in our museums were made by people who saw the world in a very different way from us. So when I eventually left museums, I was determined to write a history of seeing. 

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