LONDON — For an institution with 18,000 collections in every medium, from painting through applied arts — including metalwork, manuscripts, textiles, and ceramics — the Hispanic Society Museum and Library remains unjustly obscure. This may be due in part to its location, in a Beaux Arts-style building in Manhattan’s Audubon Terrace, on the north end of the island. Or to its idiosyncratic, terracotta-colored pseudo-classical interior, and its focus on research more than exhibitions. Director Guillaume Kientz described it as effectively a “closed institution.” Philanthropist Archer M. Huntington founded the center in 1904 and set about amassing a collection of artifacts of Hispanic cultural heritage spanning from antiquity to the 20th century. In 2015, former Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello joined its board and spearheaded a comprehensive campaign to double its size and elevate its presence in the museum world, requiring its closure for a major renovation in 2017. Meanwhile, 200 items from its collection traveled to several global museums and landed at the Royal Academy in January 2023 for the exhibition Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library.

Instead of just using the gallery as convenient storage, Keintz and Royal Academy curators Adrian Locke and Per Rumberg have mounted a display in keeping with the Hispanic Society’s raison d’etre: to tell the story of Hispanic history through its collection, here arguably better so than at the Audubon Terrace location. They do so by utilizing the RA’s more expansive gallery space to display the pieces chronologically. A spacious installation affords them individual attention rather than presenting a collective oneness. Proper lighting and deep blue walls also enhance the focus; the brilliant earthy red in the original setting tended to vie for visual dominance. And exceptional captioning provides equal attention to each individual work’s technical tradition and history, as well as its place within the context of history. 

Installation view of Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

It helps that the collection is itself so comprehensive and its condition near pristine. An ancient Roman portrait bust and mosaic Medusa head (c. 138–50 CE, and c. 1752–225 CE), followed by an intact Visigothic belt buckle and plaque (550–80 CE) near the exhibition’s start illustrate how the Roman presence in the Iberian peninsular (19th century BCE–5th century CE) was eventually supplanted by invading Sueves, Vandals, and Visigoths. Illustrating the long Islamic rule following the 711 invasion into Visigothic territory are extraordinary silk textiles in fine condition bearing Naskh and Kufic inscriptions. Most interesting is the exchange of artistic traditions visible in a range of glazed slipware, as Christian and Islamic territories remained fluid in the 13th to 15th centuries. Here, in a playful wall display, ceramics employing Islamic technical traditions bear both its geometric visuals and the heraldic emblems of Christian patrons.

The myriad of mediums, styles, artistic traditions, and functions swirling around during a period of coexistence among Islamic, Christian, and Jewish faiths continues in the main exhibition hall’s display: for example, a baptismal font (Toledo, c. 1400–1500) created in the Islamic tradition bears the “IHS” symbol denoting Jesus Christ and a khamsa, or “Hand of Fatima,” an Islamic talisman adopted by Christian and Jewish communities in Islamic Spain. Progressing into the 16th century and onward, we reach the Habsburg dynasty under Charles V and Philip II, and the dynasty’s systematic expulsion of Muslim and Jewish communities. With no objects to expand upon this violent upheaval, we lurch instead toward an exemplary collection of the Spanish Golden Era’s greats: superb paintings by El Greco, Anthonis Mor, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Diego Velázquez. Amid this display is an exceptionally rare Black Book of Hours (c. 1458), an illuminated manuscript with black pages — one of only three in existence.

The issue of colonialism looms large as the pivotal factor in Spanish expansion, and its ugliness is unavoidable. However the objects most relevant to this timeline are more academic and less expressive of sociopolitical events of the time; by their nature they cannot directly show the violence of colonialism — as would, say, narrative depictions — and instead passively indicate its effects: extensive maps and artifacts made domestically in Spain’s gained territories in the Americas until independence movements in the 1820s forced their relinquishment. A coffer from c. 1650, made using an indigenous pre-Columbian lacquer technique adapted to suit the contemporary tastes and uses of colonial patrons, barely hints at the vast history of violence and disruption it signifies.

Installation view of Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Perhaps as a compensatory measure, the curators have devoted three rooms to the subject — People and Place, Decorative Arts, and Religious Art — with wall texts covering a lot of ground. While acknowledging the horrors of the colonialism, it nonetheless highlights some art historical positives — for want of a better word — in the further exchange of traditions and ideas. In items like the coffer, indigenous artists incorporated their own local references to flora and fauna, which the wall text says have been “[acknowledged] as acts of resistance.” While the subject isn’t quite given its due, the curators’ hands might be tied by the items with which they had to work (somewhat ironic given the breadth of the collection).

A 2019 monographic exhibition of Joaquín Sorolla at the National Gallery exposed UK audiences to the Spanish master but many people may remain unfamiliar with his contemporary, Ignacio Zuloaga, both of whom were extensively collected by the Huntington Library. The former artworks are characteristically bright and vivacious, depicting sunny scenes of Spanish life, particularly children and the beach, while the latter employed a more brooding palette and explored grittier and familial themes. In a brilliant curatorial gesture, fantastic examples by both artists are displayed on opposing sides of the room, allowing for visual contrast within one vista. Audubon House holds the Sorolla mural “Vision of Spain” (1912–19), superlative in scope and scale. By its physical nature it cannot travel, but this work provides a similar visual treat. A study for the mural is displayed in the final room.

Huntington established the Hispanic Society in the interests of understanding and researching Spanish history, particularly as it informs current American culture. Such is its historical and geographic breadth, matched by an extensive collection spanning equally vast religious cultures and traditions, that despite excellent methodical and calculated curating — and despite its immense visual pleasure — much of this exhibition may feel overwhelming. It will reward multiple visits. As for the Society’s reopening, it provides a flavor of the intent behind its expansion and plans to fully utilize this collection for public education and enjoyment.  

Installation view of Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, London, England) through April 10. The exhibition was curated by Adrian Locke, Per Rumberg, and Guillaume Kientz.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...