Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Real paintings vs virtual?

There used to be a regular refrain from museum curators resisting the online display of their collections that the web would destroy museum visiting. Happily the opposite seems to be the case, with research in France (why have they alone bothered to check this out?) showing that the more people look at art on line the more likely they are to decide to go and see the original.

We all know what a poor second best art is on line, from very ordinary colour rendition to a complete lack of texture. Attempts to jazz it up have always to my mind been about the technology rather than the aesthetic experience. In that vein, I remember being shown a 3D rendition of a vase at the V&A ten years ago, which turned right round as if on a turntable, thanks to a myriad photos stitched together.

So when I saw that Google Earth has teamed up with the Prado in Madrid to put 14 images on line able to be inspected in microscopic detail, my first reaction was ‘who wants to look at them that closely’. It may be an amazing feat of technology to stitch together 8000 photographs with a resolution of 14,000 megapixels for every painting, but I am not sure who is going to use such a facility.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Seb Chan - a person of influence

It was great to see Seb Chan recently listed in the Sydney Morning Herald’s 100 most influential people. Seb is head of web services at the Powerhouse Museum, and those of us who have been lucky enough to work with him know how justified the inclusion is. Seb is an extraordinary resource both for the Museum and the wider community.

The Powerhouse Museum has taken the view that their online presence is not just about getting collection information up on the web, it’s also about allowing the casual user to have easy and pleasurable access, and to build on that experience by tracking and monitoring how information is used. They recently picked up a gold award for online presence in the 2008 Muse Awards from the American Association of Museums – a major achievement.

Anyone who has experienced Seb’s unique style of powerpoint presentation in seminars or workshops will know it is characterised by a fast peppering of essential facts and figures, which leaves the audience exhilarated and inspired.

Travel to any international museum conference which includes people involved in web services and you will find they speak in awe of his ideas and abilities. Or you could read some of the posts on Seb's blog, Fresh + New(er).

Move Curtin's home?

The West Australian reported on January 7th that Colin Barnett, WA’s premier, is happy for the former home of Australia’s wartime PM, John Curtin to be moved to Curtin University. He is quoted as saying that he "puts pragmatism ahead of the purist view". The journalist in response asks "how a building such as Curtin’s home can have any heritage value left when it is taken from its original site".
What’s right and what’s wrong in such an instance? My gut feel is that context is everything and this very ordinary suburban Perth house needs to be kept in its Cottesloe location for the full Curtin story to be understood. It ensures retention of what interpretation experts call ‘the spirit of place’. There is a management precedent with the Chifley Home in Bathurst run by the Bathurst Regional Council, who were incidentally the recent recipients of an Arts NSW grant of $82 000 ( to be matched by the Council) towards the development of the Chifley Home Interpretation Centre.

Alternatively the National Trust of WA, one of the country’s most successful state branches of the Trust, have apparently said they would be happy to restore and run it. Houses that have been moved have generally been done so for architectural rather than historic reasons - take the wonderful Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex, UK where an entire village of historic houses have been brought together. The Cook House transported from Yorkshire to Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne is a more questionable move, of interest now as a curiosity rather than for its celebrated explorer occupant.

But pragmatism inevitably must play its part. Historic house museums are a recipe for losing money. Virtually none of them make any money, and those that do mainly achieve it through hire of the premises for weddings and functions, something for which the Curtin house appears not to be designed. Moving the house to its namesake university might achieve a whole new focus for the building as a study centre. Macquarie University are rightfully proud of their Macquarie Room, containing panelling from Macquarie’s study and the Macquarie chairs, commissioned by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, and regularly used by the University’s chancellor.

Learn more about John Curtin's home here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


This blog, Museum Musings, is the personal thoughts of Julian Bickersteth, managing director of International Conservation Services, based in Sydney, Australia. Julian has spent the last 25 years working in, around and with museums and galleries, mostly in Australia.