a Shakespearean portrait after the Internet Reformation

The Internet allows a huge amount of information to be made freely available globally at little cost.  Because analyzing information requires time and skill, most persons won’t do it. But the provision of information nonetheless signals credibility.  If an authority doesn’t provide publicly, by Internet standards, a reasonable amount of relevant information, then that authority looks like merely a privileged storyteller.

In its purportedly scientific analysis of possible portraits of Shakespeare, the National Portrait Gallery of London looks like a privileged storyteller.  In 2005, the National Portrait Gallery told a story about its scientific analysis of a possible portrait of Shakespeare.  It made this story public first on a popular television show.  A year later it held a related exhibit entitled Searching for Shakespeare.  The National Portrait Gallery has not made public detailed descriptions and documentation of its analysis of the portraits.  Since the Internet Reformation, everyone should thus question the authority of the National Portrait Gallery’s claims.

details from the Flower Portrait of Shakespeare
Are these details from the same painting?

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s recent book, And the Flower Portrait of William Shakespeare is Genuine After All, controverts from at least an early modern standpoint the National Portrait Gallery’s claim that the Flower Portrait of Shakespeare is a nineteenth-century painting.[1] Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a Professor at the University of Mainz, has done a large amount of research on Shakespeare’s life and on portraits of Shakespeare.[2]  Her book organizes and compares detailed observations on different records of the Flower Portrait.  It also presents testimony on common evidence from experts spanning Germany, Austria, England, and the U.S. [3] While effectively recreating a Republic of Letters, the book positions itself, like Shakespeare, in a liminal epistemological-intellectual era.  Specifically, attached to the back cover of the book is a CD-ROM that contains 73 images associated with records of the Flower Portrait.  Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s conclusions rock the foundations of established beliefs, prompt questions about the credibility of major institutions, and lead into a vortex of confusion about illusion and reality.

Recent exhibitions highlight the National Portrait Gallery’s contrasting medieval intellectual position.  The National Portrait Gallery displays in its London museum only portraits of important persons — persons who have made or are making British history or culture.  Recently it sponsored at a provincial venue an exhibition of portraits of unimportant or unknown persons.  The exhibit, entitled “Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits, 1520-1640,” makes a claim on scholarly research:

Students undertaking a Masters degree course in Art History at the University of Bristol worked with the National Portrait Gallery curators to research these mysterious portraits in detail and this display presents their findings.

But the exhibition website includes only meager, general information about conserving, restoring, and researching early British portraits. At a different National Gallery in London, one finds a exhibition “Close Examinations: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries” with a significantly different orientation.  It presents considerable detailed evidence, including an interesting series of case studies on “how Gallery experts have occasionally been misled – and how their mistakes were discovered.”  This exhibition represents the best spirit of science and enlightenment.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, in contrast, seems more concerned with high-status storytelling.  As part of its exhibition on mystery portraits, the National Portrait Gallery commissioned seven “internationally renowned authors” to compose fictional biographies and character sketches to associate with the mystery portraits.  While that makes for good entertainment, it provides a false national portrait, or at least a false national portrait of a nation that will survive through the twenty-first century.

The National Portrait Gallery has offered no substantial public response to Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s work.  Perhaps the National Portrait Gallery’s organizational hierarchy has forbid scholars from discussing the matter.  Such action would be consistent with the National Portrait Gallery’s policy of not allowing even personal, non-commercial, non-flash photography within the gallery.  If ordinary persons were allowed to photograph the portraits it keeps, then those portraits would become much more enmeshed in common communication networks, and ordinary persons would effectively gain greater access to them.  The National Portrait Gallery apparently doesn’t want that to happen.[4]  Perhaps the National Portrait Gallery can remain a privileged storyteller.  But if the National Portrait Gallery ignores or tries to suppress the Internet Reformation, it will lose credibility and respect.

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Related post: a Shakespearean portrait of bad public reason


[1] Published by Georg Olms Verlag, 2010, in a dual English-German text. The book will be presented to the public at the University of Mainz on Sept. 28, 2010. Speakers at the event include a vice-president and a dean from the University of Mainz.

[2] See, e.g. Hammerschmidt-Hummel, Hildegard. 2007. The life and times of William Shakespeare 1564-1616. London: Chaucer Press; Hammerschmidt-Hummel, Hildegard. 2006. The true face of William Shakespeare: the poet’s death mask and likenesses from three periods of his life. London: Chaucer Press.

[3] These experts are Reinhart Altmann, former forensic expert at the German Bureau of Criminal Investigation; Professor Wolfgang Speyer, an Austrian expert on Old Masters; Helmut Zitzwitz, a New York-based conservator and art-gallery executive; Dr. Thomas Merriam, a Shakespeare scholar based on Basingstroke, England; Professor Dr. Jost Metz, former Medical Superintendent of Dermatology in Germany; Professor Dr. Volker Menges, former Head Physician for Radiology at a teaching hospital of the University of Heidelberg; Dr. Eberhard Nikitsch, an inscriptions expert based in Mainz; and Dr. Eva Brachert, a picture restorer at the Land Museum, Mainz.

[4] The National Portrait Gallery is a publicly supported institution that keeps important artifacts of common culture. It declares its mission thus:

The National Portrait Gallery aims to be the foremost centre for the study of and research into portraiture, as well as making its work and activities of interest to as wide a range of visitors as possible.

A commitment to accessibility that does not fully embrace the possibilities of the Internet and social media is deeply flawed.

Image credit:  To foster public discussion of the unusual issue associated with the Flower Portrait, I created the above image by combining, cropping, resizing, and re-compressing images “015 – A – ill. 4.jpg” and “016 – B – ill. 4.jpg” from Image File I on the CD-ROM provided with  Hammerschmidt-Hummel (2010), And the Flower Portrait of William Shakespeare is Genuine After All.

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