Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Are Museums becoming the new churches – the place to meet?

I have blogged recently about falling visitor numbers at museums as a worldwide trend, and the opportunity for approaching the use of museum buildings in a different way (Museum visitation is falling but what are we doing about it? ), so I was particularly interested to read an article in the Times last week by Hugo Rifkind on this issue (How we learnt to dumb up and chill out).

Rifkind looked at those UK museums where visitor numbers were NOT falling (Liverpool museums - up 400% during 2008 whilst it was EU’s Capital of Culture-, the British Museum and Museum of Childhood), and found a number of theories to explain it:

1) People are using museums as secular public spaces (the new churches), where they can meet to pursue like interests . They have become places that are as much about activities as collections. The importance of providing good cafes and restaurants has now become paramount to provide a reason to return, whether it is to view a special exhibition, attend an event, or be part of a club or group that meets regularly there. This all about affinity groups wanting to use the space because they feel attracted to it (in just the same way as historic house museums have the potential to be used).

2) People are wanting more challenging entertainment – the ‘dumbing up’ theory. Rifkind quotes Neil MacGregor, boss man at the British Museum, in saying that ‘there is a huge desire to understand and to address complexity, and to spend the time to do so”. It is not true, MacGregor says, that we live in an era of dropping attention spans. Not sure I agree with this one – if the current crop of TV programs is anything it go by, we are inexorably seeing dumbing down rather than up.

3) Free entry and recessionary times means more people are taking advantage of museums as places of entertainment. Free entry has a side benefit of providing people with a sense of ownership. I think this explains why even in recessionary times whenever there is an appeal for the purchase of some major artwork about to be lost overseas, invariably in the UK the monies are raised. The public feels that part of the public cultural collection is at risk, and is prepared to chip in.

I find this stuff fascinating, and more to the point critical in understanding how we can continue to increase visitation.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The power of the real

It’s so stimulating to achieve a museum visit that reinforces the power of the real. Much as I promote how digitizing collections and getting them on the web is encouraging people to come and see the real thing, it still gives me a buzz to find a museum full of visitors all seriously engaged and clearly enjoying looking at real objects.

Such a place is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the adjoining Pitt Rivers Museum. Despite living in Oxford for three years I had never been to either which I now much as they are both museums that would repay many repeat visits. The Museum of Natural History is housed in a wonderful Victorian Gothic building opened in 1860, with the main display area being the Great Court. This is a cathedral like space with a glass roof supported by cast iron columns and surrounded by four arcades in the form of a cloister. It is a space that immediately makes one want to be there, a real intake of breath place – I liken it to the new central court at the British Museum. How important is that in museum design! Beautifully designed exhibits and lots of real objects to touch from fossils to stuffed birds and animals. Kids everywhere, and not just in school groups, i.e. they had dragged their parents along for a further visit.

Off the back of the Great Court opens the Pitt Rivers Museum. I had read about the redo this has recently had in museum journals, but on first site you would not know it. No glitzy well lit new showcases, in fact no well lit anything – it is all kept dark for reasons of conservation, so much so that torches are provided at the information desk! The Museum was founded in 1884 when Augustus Pitt Rivers, an influential figure in the University’s archaeology and anthropology departments who gave his collection of 20,000 objects to the University. One of his gift conditions was that the objects should be displayed by how they were made or used rather than by age or cultural origin. The collection has now grown to more than half a million artefacts, and it feels like most of it is on display. The showcases are packed solid with objects many with the original tiny hand written labels. It goes against all that modern museological thinking promotes – there is no start or finish, no story to follow – but it certainly works. Again the museum was full of people peering into the depths of dark showcases. Why? Because of the drawing power and fascination of the real.

It’s an exhilarating eye opener to why people continue to visit museums – and more on that in my next blog.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The power of place in historic house museums

Visiting various National Trust properties in the UK in June, I was reminded about the power of place. Stunning as these places are physically, whether it be their gardens e.g. Sissinghurst, their buildings, e.g. Waddesdon Manor, or their collections, e.g. Kingston Lacy, the reason visitors want to come back to them is more about the ‘spirituality’ of the place than the aesthetic pleasures they provide. As numbers of visitors to historic house museums continue to fall from highs in the 1980s, particularly in the US and Australia, the challenge is to find ways to attract people back and at the same time new audiences.

One way that the English National Trust is having significant success in attracting repeat or new visitors is by creating groups of like minded people that enjoy meeting at one of their properties because of the power of the place. By this I think they mean that it is a place where they can meet people who share their interests, enjoy social activities, even volunteer to help conserve their heritage, all in the setting of a place that has a ‘spiritual’ dimension through its history, beauty, or association. They have over 350 active groups.

Another clever way is by associating the place with a good gastronomic experience. This goes beyond just having a good restaurant. Using the slogan “Savour the taste, remember the place”, the National Trust is pushing the line that if you can give people good food in an inspiring place then again they will be more likely to come back. Overlaying this with a focus on organic food grown on Trust farms gives it another dimension. As the Trust says, they ‘passionately believe that there has to be a change in the way we all think about food, how it’s produced, where we buy it, and how we cook it’ (has Jamie Oliver had THAT much influence?!) .

The National Trust in England is one of the great heritage success stories of how to build a vast and loyal membership base (well over 3 million), and they have obviously been helped by a large population on a small island and some extraordinary properties. However the National Trust in Australia could learn from their focus on the power of place. As a board member of the NSW branch, I look forward to seeing what we can do.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When is a painting over cleaned?

Conservation as a distinct profession only really took off after the Second War. Prior to that there were art restorers who had been around for centuries, but they lacked the scientific understanding of the causes of deterioration that now underpins conservation. However that understanding has not stopped the ongoing controversies over how far paintings should be cleaned, particularly Old Masters. I was taught that the Old Masters would always have intended their artworks to have been seen in the bright colours that we now view them, and that the varnish coatings they applied (and which oxidised and darkened to give the gloomy look of many pre cleaned Old Masters) were only meant to protect the surface not darken with age. As with life, the older I get I realize this issue is not quite so black and white.

Two events have reminded me of this recently. One is the publication of Writings in Art Restoration, by David Bomford, ex Senior paintings conservator at the National Gallery in London and now Head of Collections at the Getty in LA. David has probably handled more Old Masters than the rest of us the proverbial hot breakfasts (he is a world expert on Rembrandt), and he has compiled here a fascinating compendium of articles and critiques written over a number of centuries on the subject of paintings restoration. Go no further than this if you want a definitive overview on the subject.

The second is the recent obituary in the Times on Frank Mason. Frank was a New York based artist who championed the cause of the destruction of paintings by over cleaning. As he said "A fine oil painting does not possess a hard impermeable surface, but is comprised of layers of ground pigments, suspended in elastic films of various oils and varnishes which are superimposed, interwoven, and melting into each other in a way which not even the artist can accurately map. In spite of what conservators would have us believe, science cannot objectively scrutinize a painting and accurately enumerate all of its components in a meaningful way: a plain chemical analysis is too crude a tool to measure the ineffable".

Mason led a number of campaigns to stop major galleries such as the Met using what he deemed over harsh methods of conservation, combining with Pietro Annigoni (he of the famous portrait of the Queen) in protesting about the National Gallery, London’s approach. Annigoni took this one stage further in 1970 painting the word ‘murderers’ in capital letters on the doors of the Gallery! But Mason’s most public campaign was against the cleaning of the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Mason enlisted the support of some hard hitters on this, and although he was unsuccessful in stopping the project, his campaign did lead to the formation of Artwatch International, which was established to protect the integrity and dignity of works and art and architecture from injurious or falsifying restorations.

I’m a great fan of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I am an even bigger fan of having these types of discussions as only by such debate do we ensure we can get it right more times than we don’t.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Museum visitation is falling but what are we doing about it?

I’ve heard anecdotally for some time that the number of young people attending classical music concerts is dwindling, and certainly the lack of interest from my children in such despite studying music through to final year at school has reinforced this. But now out of the US has come news of double-digit rates of decline for classical music, jazz, opera, musical theater, ballet and dramatic plays attendance since 1982.

The same study has unfortunately also shown that the percentage of eighth-graders who reported that they visited an art museum or gallery with their classes dropped from 22 percent in 1997 to 16 percent in 2008. As the National Endowment for the Arts has also released new data showing that fewer adults were choosing an art museum as a leisure-time destination, the trend seems to be all downwards. In 1992 26% of adults reported that they visited an art museum, but the number for 2008 dropped to 23%. The exception, perhaps not surprisingly, was in Washington DC, where 40% of adults said they had visited a museum in 2008, reflecting tourism and free admission at most major museums.

I can’t lay my hands on equivalent data for Australian museums , but I’ve seen similar in relation to falling numbers visiting historic house museums. At the National Trust of Australia (NSW) we’ve realized we cannot buck the world-wide trend so we are looking at different ways of making the house museums work. This ranges from encoraging affinity groups to use them ( e.g. local community book clubs) to maximizing opportunities to use the site for functions/ hire out in innovative ways. Are museums doing the same, i.e. being innovative with the use of their resources? I immediately think of where the web fits into all of this. We know that there is evidence that the more activity there is around museum web sites, the more physical visits seem to occur. And those physical visits can be spread more widely - places like the Powerhouse Museum are regularly opening up their stores to provide greater access to their collections.
What we do unfortunately know is that government funding bodies still set great store by numbers coming through the door, so these falling trends do not bode well for the sector.