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National Gallery of Art
National Gallery of Art
West Building, Ground Floor, G21, 4th & Constitution Avenue NW
Washington
free
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In 17th century the idea of a public museum open to all citizens was almost nonexistent in Europe. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, rulers, nobles, and wealthy merchants acquired and sold paintings and classical sculpture. As the field of archaeology emerged, many sought and traded classical gems, vases, and numismatics, private libraries grew, and "curiosities" ranging from scientific instruments to mineral, plant, animal, and ethnographic specimens were popular. These collections were private, and the museum, often housed in a private residence, was a way to demonstrate an individual's wealth and sophistication. Some of those private collectors wrote their own catalogues, others sought noted scholars to catalogue the collectibles. Artists were commissioned to produce engravings depicting the assembled objects in fine detail. The private collection catalogue soon became as much a luxury object as the items it described, and as collections were dispersed over time, these catalogues often remained the only record of their original contents.
The National Gallery of Art Library owns a large number of these private collection catalogues, which are shown in this exhibition.