Friday, October 30, 2009

Deaccessioning (2)

I quoted Nick Merriman in my previous blog on deaccessioning, as he has been the leading UK advocate for museums actively grasping the nettle of deaccessioning as part of the process of good collection management. Diane Lees, the director general of the Imperial War Museum in London, writing in the latest UK Museums Journal, postulates that in these difficult financial times, we should ensure that museums should operate as efficiently as possible, and that includes deaccessioning. In her words, “we should hang our heads in shame at the amount of public money going on storing domestic rubbish”.

Tough words, but returning to Merriman, there has been an interesting process going on, of which he, as chair of the MA Ethics committee, has been at the centre. In summary Southampton City Art Gallery plans to sell various artworks to fund a new museum called the Sea City Museum, and this has been referred to the Ethics committee. The committee has weighed up the potential benefit of the development of the new museum against the potential damage to public confidence in museums. The Code of Ethics is clear that museums should refuse to undertake disposal principally for financial reasons except in exceptional circumstances.

The question is ‘are these exceptional circumstances’? From the evidence they have looked at, the committee has not been convinced there are exceptional circumstances YET, i.e. the fund raising for the new museum has only just begun, and potential sources not exhausted.
It’s quite a cute way out of the dilemma. They have not said yes or no, and left the door open for the Gallery to come back to the committee for a further judgment down the track. But it once again has highlighted what a vexed area for museums deaccessioning is.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Deaccessioning – a subject fraught with issues

Mention deaccessioning in most museum circles and you will be greeted with a response along the lines of 'wash your mouth out'. Although most Collection Management Policies include guidelines on deaccessioning, it is generally acknowledged that it is a brave museum director that proceeds to do so. Why so? Fundamentally I think it comes from an ethical view that items are left to public collections for the public good, and deaccessioning is unethical as it potentially 'sells' them off to the highest bidder. As a result museums associations codes of ethics have strict rules around deaccessioning in that the use of proceeds from deaccessioning can only be used for future acquisitions and the direct care of collections (UK Museums Association Code of Ethics 6.13 Refuse to undertake disposal principally for financial reasons). This is meant to make sure that a museum does not sell off its prize possessions to fund the general operations of the organisation.

However in putting the case for systematic deaccessioning, I heard Dr Nick Merriman, the director of Manchester Museums, talking very articulately on the subject at the Museums Association Conference in Bournemouth in 2006. His views are well summarised in 'What Are Museums For?', a conference essay by Dr. Christine Ovenden, as follows:

When the issue of disposal was raised as a direct corollary to this discussion, Merriman’s position was clear:

I think we should challenge the notion of retention in perpetuity, and instead think about reviewing collections after a certain period of time for their continuing potential. And we should be bold enough to dispose of them by transfer to other locations if they hold less potential than material subsequently collected. I should stress that potential should be assessed on a wide range of criteria including scholarly potential, which would be to do with documentation and association, as well as artistic qualities. This is essential if museums are to continue to collect – which I passionately believe they should do in order to reflect changing society; and I believe they can only continue to collect if they do so in a sustainable manner.

Thus deaccessioning did not necessarily imply destruction, whether through disposal or attrition from neglect, it could mean transferring elsewhere. Furthermore, it meant shifting the mindset away from permanent ownership and more towards reorientation and collaboration. It was also Merriman’s view that, ‘removal to a museum can destroy meaning and context in many cases, and therefore for a lot of recent material, short-term loans and recording might be much more appropriate – the idea of the distributed national collection might then truly embrace the whole nation’.

Nearer to home I have been impressed how the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo, NSW has handled the issue. Formed out of the Dubbo Museum, the director, Brigette Leece, resolved to use the moment of transformation and reinvention to dispose of material that had no relevance to the local area, which turned out to be almost one third of the collection. The process she has successfully followed with no negative feedback was to:
a) identify these items and set them aside for two years before any action was taken
b) make widely known that the process was underway through local media
c) wait until the new Museum was open in 2008, so people could see why the items were not relevant
d) offer the items either back to the donors or to other local museums, as a result of which Gulgong Museum took a substantial number

And a final word on the issue, which prompted the blog. In the latest American Museums Association journal Mark Gold puts up a case for allowing deaccessioning to happen directly for financial gain. He writes that the current financial crisis will potentially see the demise of some museums, and that the rules should be changed to allow for deaccessioning to be used for the urgent financial needs of a museum.

Will be interesting to see what response he gets.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Museums and the Recession - Part 2

I’ve blogged a number of times this year about the effect of the recession on museums (Why Museum visits rise in recessions (August 09), Museums and the recession – the lipstick phenomena (May 09), Will the recession close museums (April 09)). Both the UK and American Museum Association journals arrived last week and both carry articles on such. In the US the harsh reality of the GFC is emerging, described as a mixture of major staff cuts, evaporating endowments, shortening of opening hours and reduced operating budgets. Nobody is enjoying it very much, with 'efficiency' the name of the game, which translates into less money with which to do more as there are less staff to keep the operations going. Some have closed for a day a week, such as the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, though the CEO has put a silver lining on this in that it allows staff more time in the Museum without constant public pressure (I am reminded of that famous quote from a V&A Museum Keeper (read Senior Curator) in the 1960s to the effect that the only problem with museums was that one had to let the public in!).

In the UK the picture looks similar, though museums there tend to be more dependent on local council funding and less on endowment funding. Across the country there seems to be squeezing and cutting of budgets, with the jobs market described as ‘pretty bleak’, and major collecting institutions such as the National Archives having to reduce its running costs (and thus staff and programs) by 10% due to a standstill budget.

So what of the Australian scene? I was struck when in WA two weeks ago by the
poor state of funding for the Perth collecting institutions, with staff positions left vacant and budgets slashed. The most spectacular example of this is the complete canning of the $450 m WA Museum redevelopment. When I inquired if this came off some relatively good times, I was surprised to hear that, despite the vast tax revenue stream of the mining boom during the last decade, there had been no flow on into the cultural sector.

And when I was in Canberra last week, though less severe than WA, it became clear that the national institutions are also facing significant funding shortages. Where the picture is slightly rosier is with those organizations that are eligible to pick up parts of the $60m set aside by the federal government for heritage projects. This has almost all been allocated and significant parts of the sum have been picked up by the National Trust and historic house museums. As the money has to be spent quickly to help stimulate the economy, these organizations are flat out managing their programs to make that happen.

But we must not forget the bigger picture, unfortunately, that all this money being spent on stimulating the economy has been borrowed and will need repaying. And during THAT process is when the funding cuts may become really severe.

All this comes at a time when there is no love amongst the federal government for culture and the organizations that deliver it. This was brought home last week with the demise of the Collections Council of Australia, a body based in Adelaide and supported by the Cultural Ministers Council (of all the states). It is a body that, though criticized for some of its initiatives, has valiantly striven to bring the archives, library and museum/gallery worlds into closer communion. We shall be the poorer for its going.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or is it?

It’s intriguing how often I find I blog about an issue and then almost immediately come across something related to it. This time it is to do with my blog about how to look at pictures (posted September 28 2009) .

Now along comes the quarterly curatorial and conservation e-news from the English National Trust with an article on ‘the enduring eloquence of true beauty’. It has been written in response to the plea made by the new chairman of the National Trust, Simon Jenkins, to bring beauty back into the public debate, and to treat it as a serious issue in any discussion about preservation of art and nature. This touches on another issue I have blogged about namely the spirituality of historic places, and the way in which we must encourage their use by affinity groups who enjoy being there because of this. There is no doubt that historic houses can act as aesthetic reservoirs, providing a source of beauty that we can all tap into. The viewing of beauty, as we know if we think about it, can make us generally happier and more contented.

But what this article is all about is exploring how beauty works. Can we define it, and how much is it tempered by cultural perceptions? For instance the Italian and French formal gardens are seen as beautiful by their native citizens, whilst the English would merely see them as impressively formal, with the true beauty in horticulture lying in the ‘beauty without order’ of the rambling English garden.

And it lead me to think further about looking at pictures, and how much we value beauty in coming to decide if we like a picture or not. Name a truly beautiful picture, and to me a few Giverny Monets come to mind along with a Dutch still life or two. What does not come to mind is, for instance, a John Brack (one of which of an arid suburban landscape currently sits on my desk courtesy of the exhibition now showing at the Art Gallery of SA) .

So is beauty critical to enjoying a picture? Not at all in my view – it is just one of a number of elements that make an image worth the time to explore and understand it (now I am sounding like Kenneth Clark).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Predicting light fading

We all know the damage that light can cause to organic objects, and we also know a great deal about why it happens, but predicting how fast that damage will occur is an issue conservators continue to grapple with. The Blue Wool standards (a method whereby the empirically measured fading of blue dyes in wool can be used as a reference point for measuring fading) help to inform conservators on the light sensitiveness of objects. They in turn can then advise curators on the regularity of turnover of these objects whilst on exhibition. This of course is about limiting exposure to light (and thus damage), not about reversing that damage. There continues to be a myth that by 'resting' light sensitive material, such as watercolours, their colour can miraculously be restored.

These changeovers of light sensitive objects can add an enormous cost to a ‘permanent’ exhibition (life span of say 8 years). The National Museum of Australia has estimated that each changeover costs about $1,000 per object, by the time that conservation, relabeling, and installation is taken into account. Change objects every two years over an eight year exhibition span, and the NMA have calculated that in some object rich exhibitions, the changeovers can cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So it was exciting to hear a couple of papers by Bruce Ford at the recent AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) conference in Fremantle, WA on work he is undertaking for the NMA to try and more accurately calculate the rate of fade, and thus pragmatically reduce the high cost of the change-over of light sensitive objects. NMA has acquired an Oriel Micro fading test system which is providing the relevant data. Basically the system blasts a vast amount of light (c 10 million lux) at a tiny spot, smaller than a printed full stop. Because the light is so intense it can replicate about 10 years display at 50 lux for 8 hours a day in 10 minutes. But by doing it on an actual element of the artwork, but in such a small area that the eye cannot read the damage caused, it allows for much more accurate understanding of the rate of fade.

And the results are clearly showing that while some objects are more vulnerable to light than previously assumed, conservators have vastly overestimated light sensitivity. The result is that light levels and exhibition durations have been unnecessarily restricted and curators saddled with the difficult task of finding and interpreting suitable replacements mid exhibition.

Salutary stuff and one that will have a big impact on future planning for exhibitions and their maintenance budgets.