National Library of Australia

Exhibitions of ‘treasures’ — an introduction by Tim Bonyhady

Table of Contents

‘Treasures’ exhibitions have a long history, often exciting intense public interest. Their contents have frequently been highly eclectic, including very diverse objects. Yet they have also changed profoundly since the first great treasures exhibition almost 150 years ago. While they began as art exhibitions, they often no longer are. Whereas their initial goal was to put private collections on public display, they are now much more concerned with putting public collections on public display.

The prototype was in Manchester in 1857. It was organised by a committee of private citizens, whose aim was to correct the popular impression that the English had no taste for art, and to demonstrate that their collections equalled if not surpassed those of Continental Europe. They staged it in a purpose-built Art-Treasures Palace at the Old Trafford cricket ground because, after studying the prevailing winds, they discovered that it was relatively free of pollution and ‘for the well-being of an exhibition of works so delicate and precious, the avoidance of a smoking atmosphere was an essential consideration'. [Art-Treasures Examiner: A Pictorial, Critical and Historical Record of the Art-Treasures Exhibition at Manchester in 1857, Manchester: Manchester Examiner and Times, 1857, p. 97.]

On a spectacular scale, the exhibition contained 16 000 objects—not even half of those which the organizers could have shown. The objects included not only paintings, watercolours, engravings, drawings, photographs and sculptures, but also tapestries, furniture, ivories, armour, enamels, china, gems and cutlery. Seen by more than 1.3 million people over 142 days, the exhibition gave rise to both a newspaper, the Art-Treasures Examiner, and an Art-Treasures Hotel. The railway company that brought visitors to the exhibition made a profit of £50 000, whereas the exhibition itself yielded just £300.