Last week the Museum of Science and Industry (“MSI”) in Chicago announced a major gift from one of the city’s wealthiest residents, and the internet quickly lived up to the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of the Citadel hedge fund, has pledged $125 million to the popular Chicago institution, which preserves a vast collection of scientific and technological objects of great historic, scientific, and industrial design importance, such as the Apollo 8 command module and an entire World War II German U-boat, as well as a host of interactive educational exhibits on topics such as genetics, optics, and electricity. Since 1933 the museum has been housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece built for the now-legendary architectural assemblage known as the “White City”, the site of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Mr. Griffin’s is the largest single gift ever made to the institution, and as part of the donation negotiations, the museum’s board agreed to rename the place after him: henceforth, the institution will be known as the “Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science and Industry.”
Almost immediately after the announcement, social media went into overdrive to criticize the move as shameful. While many characterized the renaming as “ego-centric”, others were critical of Mr. Griffin’s past support of conservative political candidates, such as Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio. Still others posted tweets that were (rather predictably) along the lines of Judas Iscariot’s complaint in St John 12:5.
More curious perhaps, is the fact that, for about 24 hours after the donation was announced, the Wikipedia entry on Mr. Griffin contained the following text [edit mine], as shown in the screencap:
“Somehow despite his vast wealth and narcissism, he’s still such an insecure turd that he paid a ton of money to put his name on The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry like anyone is going to give half a sh[*]t in twenty years. Good job, Ken. You really spit in the face of mortality with that.”
Presumably, Wikipedia was too busy trying to figure out whom Miley Cyrus was fooling about with to get around to removing that scurrilous edit, one which strikes this scrivener as more reflective of its composer’s own personal inadequacies, rather than a legitimate criticism of the donor in question.
The convention of naming cultural institutions or parts of them after major donors is nothing new. For example, initially called simply the Music Hall when it opened in 1891, New York’s Carnegie Hall was renamed by its board in 1893 to honor steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who had paid for its construction, even though initially he didn’t want his name on the building. The aforementioned Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago was originally called the Columbian Museum of Chicago when it opened in 1893, but in 1905 it was renamed to honor its original benefactor, department store magnate Marshall Field.
More recently, the main concert hall at New York’s famous Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was renamed for music mogul and philanthropist David Geffen. The same hall had formerly been named for a previous major donor, acoustics millionaire Avery Fisher. Another building at Lincoln Center, the David H. Koch Theater, was named for the late businessman and philanthropist, after he pledged over $100 million to the theatre for its renovation and upkeep.
Suffice to say, not only is naming a long-standing tool in philanthropic giving, but as Mr. Griffin explained to the Chicago Tribune, named gifts can have a significant influence on encouraging other wealthy people to make gifts of their own. “Everybody watches what their fellow peers are doing,” he noted, “and there’s no doubt this gift to the MSI will encourage others to be generous in their giving.” Mr. Griffin indicated that he himself was inspired by the $100 million gift given by Ann Lurie, another Chicago philanthropist, to build a new home for the city’s Children’s Memorial Hospital. That institution was subsequently renamed, “The Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital”, and despite its bearing the name of wealthy people on its front door, somehow the practice of medicine managed to muddle through.
While some may not like the fact that the wealthy – and indeed, people of ordinary means – sometimes need incentives to donate to our cultural institutions, the notion that many of our cultural, scientific, medical, research, and other institutions would be able to survive, à la Blanche DuBois, upon the kindness of strangers is completely unrealistic. All human beings like receiving public recognition, and if they don’t, then they retire to La Grande Chartreuse, or close themselves in hermetically sealed apartments and use Kleenex boxes for slippers. If the cost to Chicagoans of ensuring the future of one of their greatest institutions is the renaming of said institution after an individual who helped assure its future for another few decades, that seems a small price to pay.
And now, on to some headlines of interest since we last met.
Speaking of science and technology, there may be a major breakthrough coming in one of the most daunting challenges facing archaeologists for the past two centuries. The so-called Villa of the Papyri is a palatial country house located on the coast near the doomed city of Pompeii, which is believed to have been the property of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law and his family. It was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., and when it was rediscovered in the 18th century, by some miracle almost its entire library of hundreds of scrolls had been preserved, making it the largest collection of books to survive from the ancient world. Unfortunately, because the paper was carbonized, many of the scrolls have proven virtually impossible to unroll or read, despite several attempts using methods both invasive and otherwise. Recent x-ray scans have been partly successful, but now a new effort is underway to examine some of these extremely fragile objects using a particle accelerator, which in theory would allow scientists to unroll the scrolls in virtual reality. If it works, who knows what unknown or lost works of Greek and Roman drama, history, poetry, or the like might be recovered for posterity?
And while we’re in the ancient world, you may have seen in the mainstream press how the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently ended up with egg on its face, when it was forced to return a gilded coffin it had on display to the Egyptian government. The beautiful Ptolemaic-era mummy case, which once contained the remains of an Ancient Egyptian priest, had apparently been looted during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and was sold to The Met two years ago by French art dealers using falsified documents. Over on the ARCA crime blog this week, there’s a fascinating deep dive into the case showing that, as has been the case for quite a long time, people sometimes don’t ask questions which they don’t really want to learn the answers to, even if they’re not technically culpable of doing anything wrong.
Van Dyck Vindication
Thanks to the interwebz (a series of tubes), a portrait long-believed to be a studio copy of a lost work by Antony van Dyck (1599-1641) has now been identified as the original. “The Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia” (after 1621/before 1641), which hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, depicts the daughter of Philip II of Spain, who ruled over the Spanish Netherlands on behalf of her father during the first third of the 17th century. The painting shows her in later life, following the death of her husband Archduke Albert VII, when she became a Third Order Franciscan. As recounted in The Guardian, a lively forum discussion on the Art Detective site – a place which I can state from personal experience is HIGHLY addictive – led experts to take a closer look at the picture, and confirm that it was by the hand of the master. Hopefully the example set by the cousins in putting up this virtual catalogue of all the works held in public collections throughout the UK, and combining it with a place for the public to discuss these pieces, will inspire other countries to do the same, since undoubtedly there are other lost or misidentified art treasures out there, just waiting to be rediscovered.
Hideous building – outstanding headline.