The Roberts Commission

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Francis Henry Taylor ( 1903-1957 )

Museum director Francis Henry Taylor was one of the early proponents for the establishment of a committee on the protection of cultural treasures in Europe. He met with J. Paul Sachs, of the famed ‘Museum Course’ at Harvard, as well as National Gallery officials in the fall of 1942 to propose that the government support “a corps of specialists to deal with the matter of protecting monuments and works of art in liaison with the Army and Navy.” The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, or the “Roberts Commission” as it came to be known, was founded as the result of this proposal in August of 1943. As part of the Roberts Commission, Taylor served as Chairman for the Committee on Axis-Appropriated Property, organized to document Nazi looting. He arrived in London in July of 1944 as a representative of the Commission abroad, and remained in Europe until September. Following the war, Taylor was in support of the removal of the “202” German-owned artworks from the Wiesbaden Collecting Point to the National Gallery in Washington. He was quoted as saying “the American people had earned the right in this war to such compensation if they chose to take it.”

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in 1924, Taylor spent the following year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris under medievalist art historian Henri Focillon. He enrolled in graduate school at Princeton in 1926, and spent the academic year in Europe as a Carnegie Fellow. Taylor abandoned his graduate studies to become a curator of medieval art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1928. He left Philadelphia for Massachusetts in 1931 when he was appointed director of the Worcester Museum of Art. Taylor expanded the museum’s permanent collection and built public reading rooms in every department. He was an innovative director at the time, one of the first to show temporary exhibitions in a museum. In 1939, Taylor was named director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and also served as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors from 1943 to 1945. He developed the idea of the museum functioning as “an institution of active public service, not simply a repository of art.” As director, Taylor greatly increased the size of the education department so that it could better benefit the community, and also increased the number of museum events available to the public. However, Taylor was also a controversial director. He had little respect for academic scholarship or artworks that seemed to need it for appreciation, such as the Greek vases in the museum collection that he fondly referred to as vases de nuit, or chamber pots. He also had low regard for modern art, and dubbed the Museum of Modern Art “that whorehouse on Fifty-Third Street.” In 1955, Taylor left the Metropolitan and returned to the Worcester Museum of Art as director. He authored several books, including Babel’s Tower (1945), Five Centuries of Art (1954), and Pierpont Morgan as Collector and Patron (1957). Taylor died following kidney surgery at the age of 54.