Friday, January 14, 2011

Museums post GFC

Much current museum talk is focused on where the sector is at in the post GFC world. Quite whether we are yet in a post GFC world is a matter of debate. In the US the sector was hit hard early on, due to their reliance on endowment revenue, whereas in the UK and Europe, government subsidies cushioned museums from having to make the extensive cut backs their US colleagues were making. In the UK however, despite some protection of the national museums from government austerity measures, the current situation is pretty gloomy for the foreseeable future, just as the US museum sector begins to show some signs of recovery.
What all commentators agree is that the post GFC museum world is going to be different, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Museum veterans comment that out of adversity museum leaders have an opportunity to frame a new vision for the future.

And as often is the case with such debates, some of the most interesting discussion is amongst the side issues.

Looking at three of these:

1) The shrinking pool of museum quality art and artefacts. With the substantial proliferation of new museums particularly in the Middle East and China, I have been wondering where their contents are going to come from - there is after all a finite amount of historic artistic material. Colleagues that attended the ICOM General Assembly in Shanghai in December commented on this issue, given the rate of new museums the Chinese are building, along with the slightly easier problem to solve of how to find professional staff for them.

For mature museums this is not much of a problem, and indeed one of the sources of these art and artefacts will in the future be the vast storehouses of the major museums of Europe and the US, witness the satellites the Guggenheim has created, and the Louvre and the British Museum are establishing in Abu Dhabi. For a fascinating New York Times article on this.The money being spent on the buildings alone is extraordinary with $800 million on the Frank Gehry designed branch of the Guggenheim 12 times the size of its New York flagship, and $500 million on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, on top of which the government will be paying France $1.3 billion to borrow art.

So my view is that we are moving into a period of more sharing of collections rather than a shortage of artworks to go round.

2) The contested status of many historic objects. This is an interesting issue highlighted by the media attention given to repatriation of indigenous material, the return of Nazi artworks illegally taken, the highly publicised return of Getty treasures illegally exported from Italy and of course the status of the Elgin marbles.

Again my view is that all of these events are ultimately good for the museum sector, emphasising that we hold public collections purely as custodians of the past to hand onto future generations, the exact location of which is not materially significant, so long as they remain publically accessible.

3) The game changing effects of technology. Certainly the game has changed - I like the analogy that we have moved in the museum sector from the age of travertine to the age of terabytes, i.e. that the focus is now on investing in digital infrastructure rather than famous architect designed museum buildings. Given the costs of that infrastructure both in capital and in maintenance, it may not be much cheaper.

But when you see how those who embraced the process early are now benefiting, e.g the Tate who had all their 60,000 collection on line by 2006, the opportunities are very considerable in terms of networking, cross referencing and in depth research.

So indeed it is a different world we face post GFC, but one ripe with new opportunities.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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