Monday, August 31, 2009

Conservation research – where’s it all heading?

I am the joint editor of the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material’s (AICCM) Newsletter, a quarterly publication which I see as basically about ensuring the conservation profession in Australia stays connected. It’s hard work at times as no one ever volunteers any feedback, so one has to guess whether the content is what people are after. But one regular feature I particularly enjoy is an interview that I undertake with a conservator. I tend to choose someone who has trained or worked outside Australia as I believe it gives them a particular perspective on the Australian scene, which I am always keen to ensure is unpacked in the interview.

For the next edition I have interviewed Michael Marendy. Michael is a rare breed in Australia, holding a PhD (from Griffith University) in the history of costume collecting (and its conservation) in Brisbane. Talking to Michael got me thinking about where else you could undertake a doctorate in materials conservation. I discovered that the University of Melbourne would entertain the idea, and has one graduate undertaking one, but that in the entire US only one conservation course ( at the University of Delaware) offers a PhD, and that is restricted to a maximum of 3 a year. Research in conservation is not very popular it would seem at present. But then it may be because conservation courses themselves both at undergraduate and graduate level are also under threat. London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the Royal College of Art have confirmed plans to close their joint post-graduate conservation training program. This comes not long after the University of Southampton announced the closure of the Textile Conser­vation Centre (TCC).

And to add to the malaise, I participated in a depressing panel discussion with the AICCM NSW branch last week . We were meant to be talking about key issues in conservation at present ( I was busy exhorting the room to get behind serious study and engagement with the issues of relaxing environmental standards and reducing energy use in museums and galleries) , but the evening turned out to be a good old whinge about how little traction conservators have in their institutions on the big decisions. I heard the same refrain when I started in conservation 25 years ago, except that at the time we were on the ascendant and it was all about how we get engaged. Now unfortunately the profession seems to be on the descendant. Funding cuts, lack of resources, and only objects for exhibition display being conserved are all making working in institutions pretty tedious at present. Neither the Powerhouse or the Art Gallery of NSW even have heads of conservation at present, i.e. the job positions have been abolished.

Where to from here? My view is that this is all about active engagement - getting conservators to force dialogue around the issues they know something about, including those that are museum wide such as reducing energy costs whilst still ensuring the preservation of collections. By doing so they can get back into mainstream thinking at museums, and prove they are as vital a part as any of the core functions. Having a component of the profession that is actively engaged in research is going to help our cause no end.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Museum and Gallery visitor profiles

Great to read in the Sydney Morning Herald that a survey of visitors to art galleries has shown that 33% are aged between 15 and 34 (and that excludes school groups) and only 16% over 65. The survey has been undertaken by Museums and Galleries NSW, an organization I have a high regard for (and the CEO Maisy Stapleton). It is focused on delivering services to the smaller and regional museums and galleries around NSW, but they also run excellent ‘current issue’ workshops in conjunction with the Museum of Sydney. I remember one particularly memorable one where they asked a selection of museum directors to sit on a panel together and discuss what made the job pleasurable and not pleasurable. Most of the responses were predictable, but I do remember Peter Watts, then head of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW saying the hardest part was giving eulogies at staff funerals, a process he unfortunately had a done a couple of times too many for his liking. Ironically on the panel was Seddon Bennington, the head of the Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand, who died whilst hiking north of Wellington last month, and whose loss to the Australasian museum scene is significant.

However back to those stats. Are our museums and galleries really getting a third of their visitation from the 16-33 age group? My guess is that galleries may be but that museums definitely are not. And that comes back to museums unfortunately being less cool than galleries. The Powerhouse in Sydney is trying hard to overcome this especially through its focus on design and fashion exhibitions and events, which do draw a good young crowd. And more broadly their work through the inexhaustible Seb Chan in the use of the net and social media is giving them a profile which galleries have less leverage to achieve. That is, although gallery web sites may have great images to look at, the way in which museum web sites like the Powerhouse can create links and tell stories about their collections generally means such sites have more depth to them. And that in turn is where our 15 to 34 years olds are living their lives. Seb’s latest blog indeed talks about their ability to reach people who would never cross the threshold of a museum but having become engaged with the Museum’s web site are drawn to physically visit.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Making museums better by adding visitor content

Nina Simon is as live a wire as you get in the museum world and her blog reflects that liveliness big time. For my money her entries are all a little long, but the content is invariably stimulating. As her address is Museum 2.0 can guess what she writes about. I came across her at Museums and the Web 2009 in Indianapolis where she was very much a shaker and mover of the conference.

And her latest blog has once again delivered, raising an interesting issue. Nina comments on how Web 2.0 gets better by the minute as each new byte of information is added to it – and she posits what if museums got better for every visit? What if information about every exhibit was added to by the visitor, or educational problems linked each class that had visited?

It’s a good thought. Museums have for too long been stuck in the rut of permanent exhibitions being just that – permanent and given a lifespan of eight years or so. Most of them take a mammoth amount of work to get to opening and museum staff sit back exhausted, happy that it will fill the space with only a minor facelift (a coat of paint, a couple of new labels, perhaps daringly a bit of new content) after four years. The web is changing the thinking on this as on-line exhibitions can change by the hour and moreover their success or otherwise can be charted by Google Analytics.

So what if an exhibition could be added to in some way so that not only would it have changed by the time the repeat visitor decided to return, but the content just got richer and richer. I am reminded of a show I think I saw at the Migration Museum in Adelaide where a local ethnic minority had started by exhibiting examples of their community. Word had got around and other members of the community started bringing in related material. By the time the show was over, the exhibition was so much richer, and I suspect the community was also socially much stronger, so it had benefits on a number of fronts.

That brings me to another related point that there is a real opportunity to create a forum for exhibition reviews. A National Gallery blockbuster may warrant a review but when else have you ever seen a review of a new exhibition, except in professional magazines. You can read web critiques ad infinitum on the latest theatre or film in town but not of the newest exhibition. Are people not interested? I don’t believe so – if there were reviews to read I am sure they would be quickly picked up. further adding to the way in which visitors can bring value (for better or worse) to their museum/gallery-going experience.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why museum visits rise in recessions

I’ve blogged before about the mixed messages that we are getting from data about visitor traffic during the recession.

But there really does now seem to be evidence that visitor numbers are rising on both sides of the Atlantic, as reported by Brook S. Mason in The Art Newspaper published online 29 Jul 09. The English National Trust says numbers are up by 8% in May compared to last year and overall by 24% this year. As always the detail reveals a bit of an explanation in that visits to Beatrix Potter’s house in the Lake District have almost doubled since the film ‘Miss Potter’ was released. But in the US too the National Trust is seeing between a 20% and 50% increase. “Staycations” (only in America would you find such a word) in the US seem to be driving attendance at some National Trust properties. “We have anecdotal evidence confirming that people are spending less, staying closer to home and visiting more of our sites,” says James Vaughan, National Trust vice president for historic sites in Washington, DC.
“Compared to the cost of a theatre or movie ticket, seeing an artist’s home or historic site is a relative bargain,” says Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House in the US. “Plus, the buildings are air-conditioned and a ticket is only $5.” In the UK, Ms Reynolds says that the cost of a National Trust family membership is less than a single day at a theme park.
My question is do museum/historic house visitors really weigh up before a visit whether to head out to the movies or to a museum experience? Surely we are about giving them a very different experience, not one that can be compared to a movie.

My view is that we are managing to draw more visitors because we can offer them a spiritual experience, either through their being in an historic house, generally a place of beauty and one full of stories, or their being in a museum or gallery, which invariably will be a church-like space in terms of size and contain a broad array of artwork and artefacts all of which can tell stories.

In summary therefore I get the bit about Staycations, i.e that there are more people staying at home and undertaking local visits. But I don’t buy into the 'bargain' idea of a museum visit as against the theatre or the movies. We need to see them as completely different experiences and build on that. I believe the visitor does too and will continue to respond well when they see us emphasising that difference.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Virtual tours and the Chicago Experience

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of my favourite museums for two reasons: One is that is contains a wonderfully diverse collection of fine and decorative art, including a unique collection of miniature interiors from around the world, known as the Thorn Room (a gem I can never resist revisiting whenever I go there). The second reason is that it lies adjacent to the city itself between the city and the lake, so you never have to think hard about how to get there. Anyway, the Art Institute has just opened a stunning new wing designed by Renzo Piano. I was there in April just before it opened and can attest to its stunning beauty from the outside, and given the record numbers that have poured through since the opening in May, the inside is pretty special too.

Now comes news that along with the opening of the physical, the Art Institute has also redefined the virtual. As the promotional blurb says: Pathfinder is the museum's new interactive floor plan and virtual gallery tour system on its website. The first art museum in the world to dynamically combine its floor plan with fully up-to-date high-definition and panoramic views of its galleries, the Art Institute now offers web surfers and visitors planning a trip to the museum a completely unique experience of the galleries. Pathfinder features not only the interactive floor plan, which is part of the wayfinding system installed throughout the museum for the opening of the Modern Wing, but also the ability to zoom in and out of the panoramic views for closer looks at works of art, direct links to the available catalog information for individual works, and Spanish-language prompts and on-screen navigation tools.

Sounds very impressive and from an initial road test, it looks very good. But I keep asking myself with all of these on line museum tours, who is going to use it. Is a forth coming visitor really going to bother to spend the previous evening trawling around the web site looking at virtual panoramic views of the galleries? Perhaps he or she is and I am quite wrong about this. But I just get the feel this is about what the technology can do rather than what people really want. I so well remember being in awe of the first 3D rendition of an object (a Greek Vase) that I saw, and being told that this was the way of the future now that we can look at an object on screen from all sides. I think looking at the real object achieves this, doesn’t it? I am all for finding new ways of disseminating information on objects and improving access to them, which I acknowledge this does, but I shall still be really interested to see who uses it.