Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Museums and the Buzz at Otago

The latest edition of ICOM News contains an interesting article which identifies three aspects to successful museums as follows:

  • Community engagement, i.e. ensuring that your local community is closely involved with the museum, both within and without
  • Innovative and unexpected exhibitions – exhibitions that offer fresh perspectives
  • Doing things well – maintaining high standards in everything from museum design to cleanliness of toilets
I would add a couple more, namely:
  • A strong corporate culture
  • A social space, namely a museum where people feel welcome and want to return to, where they are happy to meet their friends
So it’s always stimulating to unexpectedly come across a museum which is eminently successful, and I have just been lucky enough to spend 24 hours in Dunedin, New Zealand at the Otago Museum with the Director, Shimrath Paul and the Director Exhibitions, Development and Planning, Clare Wilson.

New Zealand consistently out guns Australia with its visitor numbers, with Te Papa in Wellington the most visited museum in Australasia at a cool 1.5 million last year. And the Otago Museum is no exception with an amazing 600,000 during a special exhibition year in 2008-09 but still in a regular year over 400,000. This is in a city with a population of only 120,000 and not much more in the local rural catchment area. Compare that with the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney (population currently 4.2 million) on 470,000 visitors in 2009-10.

Has this achievement come from following these criteria for successful museums?

Let’s check it out:

  • Community engagement. The Otago Museum has a complicated governance model being essentially a regional museum with funding from a number of local councils. Each of these has to be kept happy as rate payers monies are being channelled to the Museum . Last year the Museum was Winner of the Otago Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award for Tourism, reached out into communities in Otago with a SciCity based outreach programme, and ran Halloween guided tours round the Museum alongside a fortnightly series of live performances from kapa haka to Irish dancing. It’s noticeable that the museum guides are called communicators in the staff list, reflecting the importance the Museum sees in their role in this area with the community.
  • Doing things well. The Director did tell me they have discovered a number of people come to the Museum only to use the toilets so that part of the criteria is being achieved! But the Museum does present well with succinct signage, solid looking interactives and clear labelling.
  • Innovative and unexpected exhibitions. Two particular exhibitions caught my eye. One was a series of mini exhibitions in the foyer as a ’taster’ to the permanent exhibitions , being no more than a large showcase of, in turn, Indian ornate daggers, Macedonian pottery and Sir Edmund Hillary’s personal memorabilia. These change every two or three months. The other was a completely unexpected delight, namely a rainforest exhibition which morphed into a Butterfly gallery with live butterflies. Spectacular and a real draw card for repeat visitors, as the butterflies only last a few days so are constantly changing.
  • A strong corporate culture. This is where the Museum really does excel – you can feel it in the place just chatting to staff. And they have done this by creating a Strategic Plan into which all staff contributed during an intensive bonding session away from the Museum, and then more importantly actually sticking to what the Plan says they were going to do. Indicative of this is that in the staffroom there is a list of “behaviours we need and respect” and “ behaviours we will not tolerate”. Check out the Plan on their website, where these are listed – it is well worth a read.
  • A social space. The entrance was redeveloped to reorientate the face of the Museum from a busy road to the local park a few years ago and the result is an airy glass walled atrium which is inviting and full of buzz and people. The café is in this space, and the coffee was excellent – such an important part of museum visitation if people are going to be encouraged to return. Indicative of this, the Director was himself checking out the coffee as a new barista had started the day I was there.
So if you are down that part of the world I do recommend you call in.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, November 19, 2010

Retaining members

Ensuring that members renew their memberships each year is a key objective for most membership based organisations. For instance at the National Trust of Australia, with which I am closely involved, we know that we have regular core members and then opportunistic ones, the latter being those that either join to support a particular heritage cause or more pragmatically to get free entry to National Trust houses world wide when they are travelling. The core group tend to renew unprompted, the opportunistic ones may need chivvying along. The traditional way to do this is by personally phoning them to encourage them to renew, with the added advantage of getting feedback on the organisation. However this is expensive in terms of resources and may have only limited success.

Most museums and galleries have major membership programs. The highly successful MOMA membership program boasts an astonishing 130,000 members. But in times of economic downturn membership renewals are often the first to be chopped from personal budgets.

A couple of interesting case studies I have come across show some different ways to retain members. ICOM News reports that at the Tate in the UK, membership had risen to 90,000 when the GFC hit in 2008, at which point retention rates, having been around the 90% mark, started dramatically falling. So at what sounds like considerable cost to the management, an external data analysis company, Tullo Marshall Warren was brought in to help solve the problem. Members were broken down into eight segments, based on their propensity to lapse. Particular focus was made on the frequency of visits to the various Tate galleries (Tate Britain , Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives), as it was discovered that if visits start to tail off in the last six months of membership, there is a high chance of lapsing. If a member has lapsed for over 24 months, it was a waste of time targeting them.

It may all sound like the bleeding obvious and Tate themselves acknowledge that there were no major surprises. But what it has helped them do is to work out how better to retain members before they reach the lapsing stage. After three months of membership an email is sent to members, offering a ‘Tate treat’ in the form of a designer travel wallet when they next visit. At six months they are sent a pack of post it notes with reminders of the exhibition schedule and at nine months, just before the renewal process, the ‘Tate treat’ is a free coffee at the Museums’ cafes. Retention rate is back at 90% so it seems to be working.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic at the Whitney in New York, a different route is being employed to retain members, by offering a ‘Curate your Own’ membership. Members can select one of five specialised buckets of benefits to add to the core admission and discount member benefits. Driven initially by falling membership as the GFC hit, the Whitney wanted to find a way of connecting with their members and the experiences they most value at the Whitney, admittedly off a much smaller base than the Tate of 12,500 members. Through focus group work, they discovered five strong attitudinal segments, each of which was developed up into its own package of benefits.

The five are:

  • Social, for those who enjoy cocktail parties and previews, and social gatherings around cultural events
  • Insider, for those who like to see behind the scenes and be able to talk directly to curators and conservators
  • Learning, providing regular lectures and gallery talks, and access to educational programs
  • Family, providing such benefits as kids passports, stroller tours, and guest passes for family carers
  • Philanthropy, for those wanting to support the Whitney’s work
Sounds like a great idea, but very labour intensive to organise and deliver. It is also unclear at present if it has helped retain or grow members at the Whitney.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, November 8, 2010

Museum statistics

We all know the Disraeli quote that There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. So I hesitate to draw attention to the latest offering from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview
However it does make for interesting reading. It’s just been released (October 2010), but only covers the year 2005-2006. The information is now going to be regularly updated, so that for instance the section on attendance in selected cultural venues for 2009-2010 is due out by next month.

Let me provide a snapshot of what I found to be some of the more interesting statistics, all of which relate to the period 2005-06:

  • Australians on average spent 0.3% of their time visiting entertainment and cultural venues, which is the same as that spent on religious activities and three times as much as that spent at sporting venues.
  • 3,630,000 people attended art galleries and 3,611,900 attended museums (i.e. almost equal) as compared to 5,699,000 that attended zoos or aquariums (surprisingly high) and 1,508,000 that attended classical music concerts (surprisingly low).
  • Significantly more females attended art galleries than males, whereas only marginally more females attended museums than males.
  • The frequency of attendance at art galleries (36% only once, 46% 2-4 times and 17% 5 times or more) was significantly higher than at museums (50% only once, 39% 2-4 times and 11% 5 times or more).
  • 57% of overseas visitors attended a museum or art gallery and 62% visited a historic building or site
  • State funding of collecting institutions varies widely, an interesting comparison being between the three major eastern states. On the face of it, there is a massive discrepancy between museum spending in Victoria and NSW, with the latter being far more supportive. Likewise in Queensland , it looks as though Archives are being disproportionately supported, though this may be due to capital works.

                                       Art galleries  Museums   Libraries    Archives

                     NSW           $49.9m          $138m          $67.3m          $7.9m

                     Victoria        $43.7m       $46.9m       $85.9m        $15.1m

                    Queensland    $36.2m    $37.1m    $48.8m       $51.9m

  • Employment in museums and art galleries rose from 5,422 in 2001 to 6,204 in 2006 a rise of 14%, whereas employment in libraries dropped a massive 39% in the same period from 11,451 to 6,986, no doubt partly due to the introduction of technological services
A few thoughts arising from these stats:

  • What is the offering that zoos/aquariums are providing that attracts so many more visits than art galleries and museums? Is it all about attracting kids?
  • The significantly increased frequency of visits (i.e. return visitation) to art galleries over museums is in my view due to the better handle art galleries have on creating social spaces, i.e. places where people want to come to socially interact and dwell.
  • With over 6 million overseas tourists and students coming to Australia each year, the fact that 57% of them visit a museum or art gallery must make us focused on how we cater for them.
  • There are a large number of unemployed librarians out there.
It is also worth taking a look by comparison at a new UK site that Creative Choices has put out called Data Generator, which is designed to help individuals and businesses access the latest economic and demographic research and analysis. It looks to be a useful online tool that can help with advocacy, strategic decisions, future planning, funding applications and presentations, and if nothing else proves the point that statistics do indeed have a use.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, November 4, 2010

UK museum cuts and the broader context

I may have spoken a little too optimistically in my last blog about the likely effects of the UK budget cuts on the museum sector. Certainly the cuts at a national level have not proven to be as severe as was widely feared (and planned for). But the reality of post budget life in Britain is already beginning to hit home, particularly at a regional level, where there are thousands of museums which do not receive DCMS (Department of Culture Media and Sport) funding. Local museums are almost universally funded by local councils and that is where the cuts are really going to bite, with local council funding reduced by 28% as compared to 15% for national museums. The UK Museums Association is running a ‘Cuts Monitor’ which details the reality of this situation - an example already of an award winning local museum having to cut staff from 70 to 15. Meanwhile universities have seen an even bigger cut of 40% to all but research programs and science and technology teaching, which is bound to have a direct effect on university funded museums. English Heritage, which at one stage looked as though it might be abolished and its operations amalgamated into another body, has survived but been hit with cuts of 32%, resulting in pay cuts, and the loss of 8 directors, and this after a 3 year pay freeze.

So are they going to be able to do about it? English Heritage currently generates 25% of its’ income from commercial activities mostly at their 400 historic sites and properties, and they are going to have to look to ways to expand these. I am indebted to my colleague Sarah Jane Rennie of the Museums and Galleries NSW for drawing my attention to some of the other proactive ways in which the sector is looking to help. Sarah Jane has recently been in Scotland and came across a toolkit that Museums Galleries Scotland recently released to guide museums and galleries practitioners through times of drastic funding cuts, Choices for Change. It is aimed at local council museums that need to look at alternative ways of governance and operation to survive, and will have resonance with similar organisations in Australia.

And at another level, there is an interesting article in the latest Museum Practice on how to make loans more economically sustainable, which also has the advantage of their being more environmentally sustainable. Where this is coming from is that loans per se are expensive, and that therefore as the budget cuts hit so loans will fall, as loaning institutions attempt to recover the full cost of making loans (typically an administration fee is charged which in reality does not cover the full costs). The UK Museums Association is reviewing its key principles for loans through its Smarter Loans initiative. This is aimed at reducing costs in areas such as packing and transport by adopting a ‘common sense’ attitude. Not sure what that means but it always sounds like an excellent idea to me.

What I like about this review also is that it is helping to feed into the work that the Eu EGOR group (Environmental Guidelines Opportunities and Risks) are undertaking in looking at how environmental guidelines can be relaxed within certain parameters. This of course has a direct effect on energy costs which are typically 70% of a museum’s costs after salaries have been paid. And that is going to help lead worldwide to a new approach to environmental guidelines. AICCM has currently a taskforce in place which I am chairing to look at exactly that issue, the fundamentals as articulated by the National Museums Directors’ Conference guiding principles for reducing carbon footprints being:

  • Environmental standards to become intelligent and better tailored to needs. No longer use blanket conditions for entire buildings
  • Care of collections should not assume air conditioning
  • Natural and sustainable environmental controls to be explored and exploited
  • New or renovated museum buildings should aim to reduce carbon footprint as their primary objective
So at least out of the adversity that our UK colleagues are experiencing some good may come.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, October 25, 2010

UK Museum cuts

In Istanbul two weeks ago my colleagues who work at the British Museum were telling me that contingencies were in place to deal with up to 40% budget cuts. That would have meant a substantial down sizing of staff as well as a host of other cuts to programs. So amidst the general devastation of nearly half a million civil servants being laid off over the next four years, the budget cuts announced by UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne on Wednesday were remarkably supportive of the museum sector. The free museum entry programme in place for the national museums has been maintained, the extensions to the British Museum and Tate Modern confirmed, and even the highly successful Renaissance in the Regions Program renewed. So the cuts that did come in the region of 15-17% were greeted with a quiet sigh of relief.

How has the museum sector managed to state its case so well? My view is that in the UK at least the national museums (on which the strength of the sector is built) have entered a golden age of late, abuzz with visitors from dawn to dusk and frequently into the evening, with strong educational programs, regular talks and concerts, good cafés and restaurants and truly finding a new vocation as space where people want to meet. Let’s hope that they can cope with these cuts with a minimum of effect on the ongoing development of what they have achieved.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sculpture around town(s)

Sydney’s public sculptures have come alive in a highly colourful way courtesy of some rather fabulous dressing coordinated by Michelle McCosker. Working with the City of Sydney and us (International Conservation Services) she has dressed 8 of Sydney’s best known public bronzes in highly colourful ways as part of the Sydney Statues: Project!  My favourite is William Bede Dalley, a past Lord Mayor of Sydney of somewhat portly form, who is normally known as The Green Man due to the colour of the bronze. Now he looks as though he has walked off the set of the musical ‘Wicked’. Check out more on our blog "Sustaining your heritage".

But wait - there’s more. Our first Aussie saint, Mary McKillop (well almost – the formal sainthood is granted this week end by the Pope in Rome) is already commemorated with a new bronze outside St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. I rather like it. It’s by Melbourne sculptor Louis Laumen.

And finally when I was in London last month I came across the latest Fourth Plinth sculpture which is an intriguing ship in a (plastic) bottle. Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, apparently celebrates both Nelson's success at Trafalgar and the postcolonial multi-ethnic mix and mingle of Britain today. The spot has become probably the hottest place to exhibit in international sculpture. A short list of 6 artists has just been selected, from which the sculpture to stand on the plinth during the London Olympics in 2012 will be chosen. "It's that time again," said London's mayor, Boris Johnson, "when the art world braces itself for a spurt of bold ideas for what is surely the premier public art spot in Britain. This is the chance for today's most exciting artists to create something in one of the most historic and traditional settings imaginable. We can only guess what they will come up with, but I have no doubt it will get everyone talking."

I am all for using empty plinths in this way. In 2007 we organised the NZ artist Michael Parekowhai to exhibit his ‘bouncer’ on the granite plinth in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney whilst its’ normal occupant, George Lambert’s Lawson Memorial was on loan to the National Gallery in Canberra.

The pictures below show Lawson in position, and then after dismantlement viewing with some disdain the usurping of his position by the bouncer.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, October 8, 2010

Melbourne Museum Musings

Last week I was embedded in Melbourne at the annual Museums Australia conference. 600 museos from around the country having a good chinwag is probably the best way to describe it. As always the real value was in the catching up with friends and colleagues, but there were also a couple of stand out papers, most notably from Professor Richard Sandell, head of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and Professor Stephen Heppell. To get a feel for Heppell check out his website, and you will get some idea what he is like. A man who clearly is at the top of his field in the on-line educational world, consulting to governments around the globe, and a most engaging speaker. As his web site says, part of his job is ‘ horizon scanning’ (I like that term) for the UK Government on future directions for educational policy.

Well he certainly gave us a good snap shot of what he has spotted on the horizon. Let me try and summarise:

  • our children are growing up as part of the post-Google generation that live in a world of social media, where emails are something that ‘Dad does”
  • current teaching modes are artificial and directly detrimental to learning. The concept of having 40 minute lessons with a bell at the end and then retuning onto the next subject for the next 40 minutes is vastly inefficient, when compared to studying a single subject for a whole morning
  • technical journals, particularly those that are peer reviewed are just not keeping up with current trends as the time lag ensures they are out of date even before they hit the newsstands
  • to understand what museum spaces might be like in 15 years we should look at what is happening on-line now, as this will show us
  • the future lies more in the ‘doing’ (verb) than the being (noun). It will not be about who we are but what we do that defines us.
  • taking shoes off for kids has a huge positive impact on their learning ability and concentration (isn't that interesting!)
  • every turned off mpa/iPod/iPhone device or equivalent represents a turned off child and an opportunity to learn lost
He finished by telling us that we are about to have the most fun ever over the next 10 years, particularly in museums. Every object tells a story - it just needs that narrative released and its’ context revealed.

Bring it on, I say!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

IIC and Istanbul (2)

A week in Istanbul for the IIC Congress really provided little more opportunity than to soak up the flavour of the place. There is so much to do and see there, and one gets the feeling that it is an increasingly confident place economically ( though still fragile politically I understand) . One American friend commented that where new furniture in the US used to say Made in China it now says Made in Turkey.

It was therefore particularly opportune that we had a key note address delivered (admittedly by video) by Turkish Nobel prize laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk. I must admit to not having heard of him but am busy making amends by reading his wonderfully complex Name of the Rose type book called ‘ My Name is Red’. Pamuk is probably most famous for his autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the City in which he sees the melancholy longing of hüzün as the hidden key to Istanbul. Hüzün is a Turkish word whose Arabic root (it appears five times in the Koran) denotes a feeling of deep spiritual loss but also a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” Pamuk saw in his childhood hüzün manifested by the slow collapse of the once powerful Ottoman empire hanging like a pall over the city and its citizens. Written in 2004, his book reveals how far the city has moved in the last 6 years, and Pamuk’s address to the Congress was all about how in the new confidence that city now shows, there is real danger that the past will be wiped out.

And his key note address was contextually perfect for the Congress as it allowed delegates to get in the space for a number of papers on how fragile is this ancient part of the world especially when assailed by the joint forces of development and tourism. High profile sites whether they be the Pyramids, Petra or the Acropolis will always attract international attention and therefore the support and funding of such bodies as the World Monuments Fund, the Getty etc, but these are but a few of the thousands of heritage sites around the Eastern Mediterranean that need protection and conservation.

We heard about the high profile sites, whether it was control of biodeterioration on the monuments of the Acropolis, or conserving twelfth century illuminated manuscripts at St Catherine’s Monastery, Mt Sinai, a project initiated by no less than the Prince of Wales! But we also heard about many less famous sites, such as entertainment rooms in rich Syrian merchants’ houses of the 17th and 18th century, known as Damascene rooms which display a particularly fine form of painted wood panelling. One of these rooms has now been re-constructed at the Met in New York and another known as the Ottoman Room in the Museum of Islamic Arts in Kula Lumpur. And to set these in context, we also heard from one of the few professional conservators working in Syria about his work trying to conserve the remaining 200 or so rooms that survive in Damascus – a fascinating and ultimately complimentary series of papers.

IIC Congresses are for my part a confirmation of why I work in this fascinating and complex field. Unlike the equivalent conferences run every three years by the Committee for Conservation of ICOM, which are based around a series of working group meetings, these Congresses are not so much about coming away with detailed information on how to tackle one’s next conservation project. They are about a reaffirmation that the conservation sector’s strength lies in our ability to learn from the experiences of other specialists outside our chosen field. Thus we deepen our conservation knowledge, and are able to apply this broad view to the benefit of our next project. We shall meet again in Helsinki in two years hence.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, September 24, 2010

Istanbul and IIC

I’m blogging from Istanbul, where I am spending a week at the IIC ( International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works – to give it its full title) biannual conference, of which I am Vice-President. Apart from being in a city that I have always wanted to visit, ever since I studied Aghia Sophia during an Early Christian Art component at university, it is proving to be a most stimulating time in terms of the spread of countries represented.

I am told there are 44 different nationalities at the conference, and for the first time as a conservator I find myself rubbing shoulders in the lunch queue with conservators from Syria, Jordan, Bulgaria, Oman, Qatar, and of course Turkey, along with the usual Western European and North American suspects. The result is an extraordinarily rich dialogue around conservation issues, and encouragingly a very clear common ground about what we are doing, and why we are doing it. The fundamental difference is that we in Western countries are operating in a legislative framework where cultural heritage is genuinely protected, whereas many conservators in this region are lone voices, without any serious government support.

Our opening speaker was Professor David Lowenthal from University College London, who it should be said turned up looking considerably the worse for wear, having had an altercation with a truck three days before. When you are 87 that’s not such a good idea, but having had the taxi in which I came into town from the airport mow down an old lady and her shopping in front of me (luckily she got up again, but I don’t think the shopping did) I could understand where he was coming from. However despite injuries this erudite man gave us a powerful jolt as to why we are doing what we do as conservators.

The author of ‘The Past is a Foreign Country’ , Lowenthal believes strongly in the need for us to embrace the broader conservation debates. His challenge to us as conservators was therefore to enter into dialogue with those around us. He sited how conservators have traditionally been separated from curators, through conservators considering the latter to be scientifically ignorant ( not sure this is the reality). And more strongly he urged us to see care of the wider environment, i.e. environmental conservation, as being critical to cultural conservation. The relationship between the two is vital, he said, especially in terms of the environment’s ability to provide context for culture. We must see posterity as our prime duty as conservators, not worrying about how we do something but why we do it.

Challenging stuff, particularly when delivered in this eastern Mediterranean cradle of civilisation. I will set it in the context of the wider conference proceedings in my next blog.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, September 17, 2010

In praise of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A has always been one of my favourite destinations in London ever since as a young furniture history student we used to pore over the rows of chests of drawers and chairs in the furniture galleries. By modern museological standards, such displays would be seen as inaccessible to most visitors and stultifyingly boring in design (somewhat over hyped in the latest Autumn 2010 edition of Bonham's magazine as " the long, doom laden corridors of South Kensington's own version of Gormenghast"), but we loved them.

With the opening of the British Galleries in the 2001, all that changed with the decorative arts collections now combining to tell the story of the development and evolution of British design. The galleries set an international benchmark in intelligent and accessible exhibition design, and visiting this week it was exhilarating to see the Museum continues to raise the bar. I had gone there specifically to see the highly acclaimed newly opened Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, but found myself re-discovering a range of other galleries. The Gilbert Silver Collection has now moved to the V&A from Somerset House and is so much better displayed, sitting alongside the impressively dense displays in the Whiteley Silver Galleries. The showcase, lighting supports and information design is all superb, and the extraordinary painted and tiled interiors of the V&A, not to mention the wonderful garden , are now used to maximum benefit rather than being boarded over.

I also discovered the substantial paintings collection that the Museum holds, including major works of Constable and Turner now in their own dedicated galleries. And if you are after a bit of muscle, the sculpture galleries depict the full story of the development of English sculpture, managing to slip into the story the fabulous Theseus and the Minotaur of Canova and Bernini's Neptune and Triton.

Much of the praise can be attributed to Sir Mark Jones who became director in 2001. At that time the V&A had broken the careers of a series of directors  ( Roy Strong, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, Alan Borg) who had been unable to conquer the eccentricities of either the staff or the maze of dark galleries ( see above), or even the diverse nature of the collection. "What is the V&A for?" asked UK Culture Secretary Chris Smith in 2004, which just about summed up common perceptions of the place. So it is great to see it back as a market leader again.
A couple of observations:

1) The US style of benefactor recognition is now slipping in with many of the galleries now personally named, e.g. the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Sculpture Gallery - doesn't worry me, especially if it allows such great results.

2) The provision of computers to allow visitors to access the wider collection was as far as I could see being completely ignored. I saw the same thing at the National Portrait Gallery later in the day. I believe such provision is missing the point. Visitors come to see the real thing and know they can access much of the collection on line so why bother during a visit. Let's ditch this idea.

And the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries? - mind blowing. Do make time to visit them for a wonderful museum experience when next you are in London.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Digitial delusion or a real new age for museums?

I have been challenged this week by a blog from Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen entitled ‘The Digital Delusion’. Challenged, because I thought I would be blogging to disagree with the blog’s premise, namely that the future for museums does not lie in digitisation, but the more I think about it, the more I actually agree.

Let me explain my position. The concept of getting collection information online by the process of digitisation is one I believe must be supported at every level, so that information can be accessed, cross referenced and understood. I came across a beauty this week at Hortus Camdensis. This is an illustrated online catalogue of the 3300 plants grown by Sir William Macarthur at Camden Park, south of Sydney, between 1820-1860. Combined with garden records of the time, including Sir William’s diaries, essays on laying out an orchard in Colonial Australia, wine growing etc and notes on changes in nomenclature, it is a model of what collection digitisation can achieve in providing not only access to a hitherto hidden catalogue, but also a pile of useful related information.

Beyond this, using technology to provide access to digitised records in an easily accessible way is also something we must continue to explore and promote. There are few better exemplars than the Powerhouse in pioneering the use of on-line collection data. Look for instance at how they use Flickr to provide access to collection information. But also check out how the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has launched an app to provide heaps more information on objects in the Museum through the use of iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches, either the visitors’ own, or provided on loan by the Museum. MONA, the new Museum of Old & New Art due to open in Hobart next January is planning to go a stage further, providing no labels to objects, with all information delivered via a mobile device. Exciting times, especially with iPad use. Its’ larger screen is going to offer all sorts of opportunities for delivery of video, as well as being a unit that a group or family can enjoy together rather than the individual experience of the iPhone or iPod.

So I fully agree with the sentiments of AMNH President, Ellen Futter, when launching their latest app that “the digital age is upon us, and we want to integrate education with technology”.

Why then the digital delusion? Museion’s point is that museums have got carried away with the concept of digitisation for its own sake without really unpacking why we must digitise. The process has been driven by ‘digital immigrants’, i.e. museum people who were not born into the digital world but have become fascinated by the technology – count me amongst them. The result is a mass of digital museum projects, some of which work (see above), but many of which don’t. How often have I seen unused computer monitors in museums provided to allow public access to the Collections – why? Partly because the digital natives, i.e. those born into a digital world, for whom they are largely provided, are not interested because they make such poor use of digital media. The overlap between the world of the digital immigrant and the digital native is only partly bridged.

As Museion points out the future is not digital, in that it is not about digitisation just for digitisation’s sake. It will and must remain real, that is grounded in real objects. Museums have a unique position to display that materiality, albeit using the undoubted power of digitisation and digital media to maximise how that materiality is accessed. We need to sell that unique ability which is only going to become more valuable as the digital world swirls around us.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Brooklyn Museum - and the value of visitor numbers

I blogged recently on the issue of falling visitor numbers at the Brooklyn Museum, and was politely reprimanded by Sally Williams, the Public Information Officer at the Museum, for not looking at the ten year average attendance as a more accurate statistic.

But it raises a fundamental question as to whether the health of a collecting institution can be measured by the number of people who come through the front door. And it is particularly apt that the New York Times should focus on this issue (and some others) in “Sketching a future for Brooklyn Museum”. As the NY Times says, “For more than a century the Museum has been one of the country’s most important cultural institutions, and for more than a decade it has also caused controversy … By some measures it has succeeded. By others, including attendance goals articulated by the Museum itself, it has not.”

The NY Times asked various experts to comment on issues confronting the Museum including falling attendance, and their responses are enlightening, particularly in the mixed views on the value of visitor numbers. Philippe de Montebello, the recently retired Director of the Met, kicks off, reflecting on the difficulty of positioning the Brooklyn Museum when so many world class museums exist just over the water in Manhattan. He takes the high-brow view that a visit to any museum should be an uplifting experience, whereas the Brooklyn has headed for the popular culture route (implicitly implying a dumbing down of the content). Karen Brooks Hopkins, President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has leapt on this popular culture as a key to success, saying that although visitor numbers are down, “the demographics are unbeatable: Brooklyn audiences are young, diverse and adventurous, which has enormous positive implications for the future.”

Rochelle Slovin, Director of the Museum of the Moving Image, has taken the same view highlighting the popular hip hop and salsa Saturdays at the Museum (a recent one on July 3rd drew an incredible 24,000 people) as no different to string quartets at the Met evenings in terms of concept – just a different flavour for a different audience.

Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and an increasingly visible museum commentator, posits that with so little revenue coming from admissions (typically 2-4%) the focus should be on evaluating museums on their contribution to research, education and conservation, along with their ability to be a hotbed of creativity.

Peter Marzio, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, takes a different tack, praising the Brooklyn for pioneering a new path and “transforming itself into an ecumenical museum by focusing its collections and programs on the diverse neighbourhoods of Brooklyn”. Interesting use of the word ecumenical – I think he means drawing together in a common space the many different local groups.

Finally into this space has gamely strode the Director of the Museum, Arnold Lehman. No-one particularly likes a panel of experts telling them how to run their museum better, but Lehman has graciously acknowledged all their comments as valuable.

And his response is a simple one, namely that the Brooklyn Museum’s interest is in who is coming to the Museum, not in their numbers. As he states, the Museum’s commitment to engage with the local community, rather than be challenged by it, has resulted in the most diverse and youngest audience of any general fine arts museum in the country.

So who wins this most interesting dialogue (and would that we could have such a discussion in the Australian press)? Unfortunately, despite the feel-good nature of the plaudits that many of the experts heap on the Brooklyn Museum and its international reputation for being innovative, the fact that the article has been written directly results from press around falling visitor numbers. And as Wenda Gu, a Brooklyn artist says, “Attendance is the most important and objective measurement of a museum’s success”.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Conservators discovering the picture

There is a view amongst conservators that virtually all of the world’s great paintings have now been cleaned and conserved and their secrets revealed, and we are moving to a stage of care and maintenance of these paintings, whilst falling back on the generally less exciting grade two paintings to ply our active conservation skills.

So it is heartening to come across no less than three recent stories of conservation treatments which show we can still get excited about what is being undertaken or revealed.

The first is the discovery of a lost Velazquez in the basement of Yale University Art Gallery, as reported in The Art Newspaper and interestingly, even pictured in the Sydney Morning Herald (everyone loves a story about a lost treasure turning up in the metaphoric attic). Long thought to be by an unknown 17th Century Seville artist, entitled ‘The Education of the Virgin’, conservation revealed the distinctive long brush strokes and sophisticated naturalism of the Spanish master Diego Velazquez.

The second is a good news story about the 1546 panel painting ‘The Last Supper’ by Giorgio Vasari, which was severely damaged in the great Florence Flood of 1966 (also reported in The Art Newspaper). Underwater for 12 hours, the panels absorbed water and swelled, only to crack up as they dried out and shrank. Now thanks to a Getty Foundation grant, a team of panel painting conservators, including those learning these specialist skills, are working in Florence to secure the flaking areas, and remove the legacy of the flood, which includes mud, mould, diesel oil and waste from the overflowing Florentine sewers.

And the third story, as reported in The Guardian, like the first also relates to conservators unlocking a hidden masterpiece. In this case, it is a painting by Renaissance superstar Tintoretto, which hung in a filthy state for decades in Kingston Lacy, a National Trust pile in Dorset, UK. Of doubtful provenance and so dirty the figures could hardly be made out, it hung on the back stairs until finally its turn came for conservation.

Interestingly, whilst the conservation revealed it was definitely a Tintoretto, it also raised an issue as to what the image was about. Known for years as ‘Apollo and the Muses’, experts are puzzled about what is going on. It is currently on its fifth name in the last few months, namely ‘Apollo (or Hymen the Greek God of Marriage) crowning a poet and giving him a spouse’.

The reality is, whatever the title, it’s the artist whose name really matters and the vital role of conservators in revealing and authenticating this is once again confirmed. Great work, folks!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

MOMA and too much of a good thing?

I have recently blogged twice about Glenn D Lowry (here and here), the current superstar of the US Museum director scene and his status is justified by a recent article in the New York Observer.

Three million people visited MOMA in the year to the end of June 2010, a new record in its 81 year history. Why the success? On the face of it, because it seems to be doing all the right things in current museological thinking. It’s a participatory museum, it’s a social space where people want to come to see and be seen and it has a dynamic exhibition program of temporary and permanent collections, along with associated media and film. Most notably, it has managed to reduce its typical visitor from a 55 year old woman to a 40-something of either sex.

But of course such success does not come without its critics. At the glitterati end, the opening night parties are frequently uncomfortably packed and amongst the art critics it is seen to be far too crowded to allow for any real engagement or ability for contemplation of the artworks. In the words of Tom Eccles, Chair of Curatorial Studies at Bard College, “the drive to become a social space is more of a fetish in museum theory right now”.

Well guys, you can’t have it both ways. On the one hand, static or falling visitor numbers are bewailed and the need to make museums more welcoming encouraged, and then when the crowds do come it is seen to “compromise” the experience. (I am reminded of the V&A keeper who proclaimed the Museum was at its best when there were no visitors).

Within this context, there’s an interesting new book out entitled ‘Do Museums Still need Objects?’ by Steven Cann (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). Cann’s premise is that objects have a diminishing role in museums as people have lost faith in the ability of objects alone to tell stories and convey knowledge. He posits that the move to turn museums into social spaces has been at the expense of the objects, with the focus being on the space itself (witness the architectural statements of Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum or Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim).

I would contend that Cann misses the point. Yes, the number of objects on display may have become less and yes, successful museums are succeeding through creating social spaces where people want to be, but the draw card is always going to be the real object. We know the power of the real over the virtual is compelling. And by having fewer objects on display often their ability to tell stories can be enhanced rather than diminished. MOMA may be too popular for its own good in some people’s eyes, but its success is fundamentally due to the depth of its collections and the way in which it interprets and makes them accessible.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Curators and declining acquisitions

“Curators are becoming a declining species” is a frequent refrain amongst museum professionals these days (see my previous blogs on curators and curatorship), the most visible effect of which is diminishing curatorial scholarship within museums.

So it was interesting to come across a series of interviews with six curators in a recent edition of the UK Museums Journal. As if to emphasise the declining nature of their position, all had been selected as they were either about to retire or had already retired. Between them they picked up on some of the essence of what curators used to do (and therefore what is being lost), such as:
  • Intimate knowledge of collections which never gets into publications and indeed often remains in curators’ heads
  • Narratives that weave together often disparate strands of a museum’s collection that explain how it has come to be
  • Anecdotal information on the museum’s history and gossip about staff, trustees and acquisition stories (not quite sure why this has been the preserve of curators but thus it has been).
But out of the interview comes also a clearer understanding of why it is that they are no longer the fundamental cornerstone of a museum’s staff profile. This includes:

  • Widespread introduction of computer-based cataloguing which has resulted in a discipline in collection management that now relies less on what curators used to keep in their heads 
  • Diminution in acquisitions, so that collecting has almost become a forgotten art, when it used to be the very soul of curatorship.
And it is the latter issue of acquisitions which in my view has most affected the role of curators. Whilst the process of exhibition development, once the prerogative of curators, has been increasingly overtaken by museum educators and designers, acquisitions can still only be undertaken by curators. But if acquisitions are not happening through lack of funding, then inevitably the role (and prestige) of curators becomes less fundamental in museums. A recent survey in the UK of 276 museums revealed that only 2% said collecting was their highest priority and 50% said they had no money allocated at all for collecting. That of course does not mean they will not be collecting at all, as so called “passive” acquiring, i.e. acquisition by donation, still ensures collections can be boosted. But it does strike to the core of what curators used to do, namely the active hunt for acquisitions and the funds to spend on them.

It reflects the very different nature of museums in the 21st Century, where they are all about making collections accessible and interpretable compared to the 19th and first half of the 20th Centuries when they were about acquiring collections. And whilst this may not affect the great art and history museums, it is more problematic for contemporary art and social history museums, which by their very nature must keep collecting to be relevant.

None of this sounds too good for curators, so what is their future? My view is that although their role is in decline, they will not die out altogether. The facts are that although the way in which museums are now run may have a primary focus on the delivery of information about the collections and that therefore the public program/education/ design professionals and their colleagues in the IT department may currently top the popularity poles in museums in the way that curators used to, someone still has to be able to provide the back ground knowledge. Now some of this can be contracted out to academics, but depth of knowledge of the museum’s collections beyond the level that the database can provide will still be required. So hang in there curators – some of use still know how valuable you are!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, July 9, 2010

How to keep those museum visitors coming back

Any discussion of innovation in museums invariably mentions the Brooklyn Museum. From being a pioneer in maintaining populist shows such as “Star Wars”, to developing a photography show curated online by the public (see previous blog), we who work in this sector are always attentive of what they will come up with next.
So it is particularly disappointing to read in the New York Times this innovation has not transfered into visitor numbers. From 585,000 in 1998, numbers dropped to 420,000 in 2008 and 340,000 last year. And this is in an environment when the visitor numbers for most other New York cultural institutions are remaining stable.

So what is Brooklyn doing wrong, or more to the point what are the others doing right to keep the visitors coming? Over in Manhattan at the Met under its new director Thomas P. Campbell there is, according to the Financial Times, a “decidedly frisky feel”. Recent Met adverts show couples kissing in front of a Rodin sculpture, three grinning children in front of a gallery of Egyptian mummies, beside their friend wrapped in toilet paper, both with the catchline “It’s time we Met”.

This is all part of what Campbell identifies as two movements that are changing the workings of museums by: (a) shifting the focus from connoisseurship to greater socio-political contextualisation; and (b) no longer only speaking to an elite upper middle class. Both run the danger of dumbing down the museum, more often defined as “popularising”. I have no problem with either movement if it does achieve in making collections more accessible, just so long as behind it all there remains the appropriate curatorial rigour.

And if you want to see what accessibility can really mean go no further than Japan where booming attendances reflect the perception among young people that visiting museums is cool.

The four most well attended institutions in the world last year were all in Japan. The ‘National Treasure Ashura and Masterpieces from Kofuki-ji’ exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum attracted an astonishing 15,960 visitors per day. Rest assured hardly anyone could see anything but that is bye the bye - by contrast visitors to the recent NGA Masters from Paris exhibition complained they could not see anything on days when there were under a third of this number. Overall visitor attendance to national museums in Japan has risen by 200% in 10 years.

Japan’s museum sector requires a study in its own right to understand what is going on, though clearly the concept of museums as meeting places where it is cool to hang out is one of their achievements. All museums should aspire to this as a fundamental starting place to maximise repeat visitation. I noted in my previous blog that MOMA in New York has 135,000 members. On the basis that each of these members has joined because they will visit the Museum more than twice a year (thus justifying the cost of membership) visitation is already guaranteed at over 270,000.

So I think one of Brooklyn Museum’s problems is that a 2008 survey showed half of the museum’s visitors were not only non repeat visitors, they were first time visitors. When your overall visitor numbers are rising that’s not a bad result, but when they are falling as dramatically as theirs are, it’s disastrous, unless you can convince a substantial proportion to come back again.

Julian Bickersteth
International Conservation Services

Friday, July 2, 2010

MOMA - Momentum and Money

I enjoyed listening to Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art giving the inaugural Ann Lewis Contemporary Visual Arts Address at the MCA in Sydney last week.

I must admit part of the fascination was seeing the world’s highest paid museum director (a cool $1.3 million per year) in the flesh. And Glenn did not disappoint. He gave an entertaining history of MOMA from its founding in 1929 to the international colossus it now is, describing the challenges of collecting contemporary art.

A former director likened this process to that of a torpedo, always moving forward, gathering art at its front end and shedding art collected in the past that was not standing the test of time. To remain contemporary it only holds onto art that is less than 50 years old. Or that is what I thought Glenn said, though it still holds some of the greatest work of Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Mondrian etc. Not sure how that works but I can understand their reluctance to de-accession such works!

Glenn then moved onto his views on where museums are going. Nothing startlingly new I would say – museums increasingly being used as social spaces, museums no longer being able to go it alone and therefore needing to establish alliances/partnerships with other organisations, museums competing in cyberspace and the importance of building virtual visitors as well as the physical ones.

But it was when he turned to the metrics of MOMA that things got really interesting. Because MOMA is all about money – perhaps not surprisingly given its location. Glenn is building a US $900 million endowment, which currently stands at $670 million. That already generates 31% of their $120 million annual income, (bear in mind MOMA, like most US institutions apart from the Smithsonian, receive minimal government funding). 3 million visitors a year contributes a further 25% of income, followed by 15% of income from their 135,000 members.

By Australian standards these are all mind-boggling numbers, but then it is New York. I came away elated by the benchmark that MOMA sets, and invigorated by the dynamism of its director.

Julian Bickersteth
International Conservation Services

Monday, June 28, 2010

Museums, galleries and their carbon footprints

The emissions trading scheme may have been shelved in Australia for the near term (though watch this space after the ascendancy of Julia Gillard to the PM’s position) but museums and galleries, just as businesses, need to treat a low carbon and energy efficient economy as inevitable.

And what Copenhagen did achieve, although it appeared to be a failure as a climate change summit, was a global agreement to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees. To meet this target is going to require transformational changes to the world economy, and therefore inevitably to the way museums and galleries operate. The GLAM sector is going to be in a much stronger position if it can take control of its preparedness for this rather than wait for the inevitable government dictate.

And whilst this is partly about the reactionary component, i.e. checking the resilience of museums to the effects of warmer temperatures, heavier rainfall and less predictable weather patterns, and the related risks, it is also about being proactive in reducing each organisation’s carbon footprint.

I find colleagues’ eyes begin to glaze over at this stage, as it all appears too hard. So what can we learn from the rest of the world in this regard? I checked out the UK where they are substantially ahead of Australian thinking on this issue. Museums are looking to establish their carbon footprint and then to do something about reducing it, both to save money and also to be eligible for grants that are available for those that are proactive in this area.

Carbon footprints treat an organisation’s carbon emissions in three parts:
  1. Direct emissions from the organisation which, for museums relate to their own boilers and fuel used by museum vehicles
  2. Indirect emissions from electricity or gas purchased by the museum
  3. Indirect emissions from sources outside the museum’s control, such as staff and visitors getting to the museum, waste disposal and suppliers emissions
The first stage is to establish what these are, and the benchmark for this is the Victoria and Albert Museum, which claims to be the first museum to have calculated their footprint in 2007/08. They found that not unexpectedly 82% of their emissions arise from utilities.  However it is interesting to see the breakdown of this, namely 29% of this being for lighting compared to 63% for heating, cooling and control of relative humidity - interesting in that we tend to forget how much energy lights use and then of course how much they contribute to warming up air and thus requiring more energy for cooling. The balance of the carbon footprint at the V&A is consumed by IT (11%), touring exhibitions (5%) and staff travel (2%).

Having established a carbon footprint (and bear in mind that it helps to have sub metering so the breakdown between lights, HVAC and IT use can be identified), then the next stage is to do something about it. This should be about reducing energy use, not about using renewable energy sources or carbon offsetting.

Again check out how the V&A has achieved a 20% reduction in their carbon footprint between 2005 and 2009. They have done this through using low energy lighting on time clocks, low energy environmental controls and a combined heat and power system, known in the business as CHP.

Perhaps the most impressive part of this is how they are implementing ongoing savings as they progressively refurbish the Museum. New gallery projects now optimise the use of daylight, minimise solar gain, use intelligent ventilation and heating strategies and avoid humidification and cooling. It is a model all museums and galleries can benefit from actively considering.

Julian Bickersteth
International Conservation Services

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Collaboration and Convergence

The concept of a division between collecting institutions in the GLAM sector is a 19th century phenomenon. Prior to that, artefacts, paintings, books and natural history specimens were often housed in the one organisation. The British Library, for instance, was only formed out of the Britsh Museum as recently as 1973.

Given the somewhat artificial nature then of this division, it is a logical process that we are seeing on the web as collecting institutions come together to once again link up their databases. I was listening yesterday to Dr Warwick Cathro, the Assistant Director General of the National Library of Australia talk at the Australian National Maritime Museum about the collaboration between the National Library, the National Archives and the National Film and Sound Archive that has resulted in Trove. Managed by the National Library it is a highly impressive metadata search engine for Australiana. A number of the audience confirmed how the speed with which they can identify primary resources for research purposes has transformed their lives.

It confirms a global trend, articulated recently by David Curry at the Future of Museums blogspot, in which he says:

Demand for access to and leverage of primary sources and collections of all kinds drives the need for common strategies around licensing, intellectual property, copyright management, and associated revenue streams. Just as important, GLAMs will have an increasingly common agenda in addressing preservation, access, physical storage, and overall management of primary source content overall, including “born-digital” content

The large and economically powerful “commercial” content market, which is perhaps anchored overmuch in entertainment content at the moment, is a key driver (and definer) for market and community expectations. Apple iTunes, Google Books+ and similar disruptions will increasingly “invade” the GLAM domain, driving the need for common, robust strategies to deal with the velocity and vectors of change.

So I read with interest an article in the New York Times last week, on how the British Museum has begun a collaboration with Wikipedia. My children are always telling me how they are forbidden to cite Wikipedia as a reference in essays, because of the amateur nature of its content. But the BM noted recently that their Rosetta Stone page views were up to five times less than the Wikipedia page on the same iconic artefact. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em goes the phrase, and so that is exactly what they are doing, even to the extent of appointing a ‘Wikipedian in residence’, an Australian no less! Key to his role will be identifying the thousands of artefacts (from the total collection of 8 million), that might be worth having their own Wikipedia article.

It’s encouraging to see the BM doing this, as convergence, the term used to describe in this context the coming together of the museum/gallery sector with the library/archive sector, still struggles in my book to find a model that works. There is the celebrated Puke Ariki in New Plymouth, New Zealand and also attempts by Albury City Council in their new cultural centre, but are we ever going to treat a museum as a library and objects as reference material? My guess is that a new model will appear as the web develops, and we need to be open to all opportunities around it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Art Theft

It is the ultimate nightmare for a museum director to have artworks or objects stolen on their watch. So the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris is no doubt not too happy about the theft two weeks ago of five paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani and Leger from his museum.

What makes it rather worse is that it appears the Museum’s alarm system had been broken for almost two months and there were three night time guards in the area at the time. Apparently they were “dozing” and “saw nothing” (which is what normally happens when you doze). Not that the insurers will worry, as apparently none of the works were insured, being owned by Paris City Hall, which self insures. The stolen art market is something which slips under the radar in terms of its extent, but is actually second only to the illegal drug and arms trades in value, being worth some US $6 billion annually. These five paintings are estimated to be worth some US $125 million and join the 170,000 stolen and missing pieces in the Art Loss Register.

Most of these pieces are stolen from private homes (witness the recent theft of a ₤80,000 painting by the reclusive “guerrilla” artist Banksy from the supermodel Kate Moss’ home in London). But where do these artworks end up? The view seems to be that either:
a) They are stolen by criminal gangs to use as collateral in drugs and arms deals and will eventually reappear on the market; or
b) They are specifically targeted by collectors and will disappear into private collections. As the BBC pointed out after the Museum of Modern Art thefts, if you wanted to start a modern art museum these five paintings would be high on your list of acquisitions as between them they tell the story of modern art’s emergence.

What is the likelihood of a major heist happening in a public gallery in Australia? Realistically, small for a number of reasons. Our major collecting institutions are newer, fewer and less exposed than European ones. They are almost universally in purpose built structures rather than in converted houses in cramped streets with plenty of back windows. And if a theft does take place there is the issue of how to smuggle it out of the country, a process so much easier in Europe with open borders.

But that is not to say it cannot happen, the most famous recent example being Van Mieris’ Cavalier stolen from the Art Gallery of NSW in 2007, and valued at over $1 million. Museums therefore need to be aware of the latest security technology. No one system is going to be foolproof, and the latest thinking combines CCTV surveillance with RFID tagging such as the ISIS Aspects Arts System.

While certainly more effective than dozing guards, if the thieves turn up with a gun however, such as when Munch’s The Scream was stolen from the Munch Museum in Norway, there is not much that can be done to stop them.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Museum cuts and directors’ salaries – are they related?

An article this week in the Chicago Tribune reported that the Art Institute of Chicago has laid off 65 staff, on top of the 22 it laid off last June. The director James Cuno, one of the giants of the US art scene, has cited the almost 25% cut in endowment income as the cause of such, putting the Art Institute in the same group as the mega rich Getty Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, both of which have laid off staff and cut programs in the last year.

It illustrates the very different form of funding that the US museum/gallery scene lives off, when compared to the UK and Australian situation. Endowments resulting from philanthropic giving have long been the main stay of US museum funding, a model eyed with envy from elsewhere, where there is nothing like the level of philanthropic giving to the arts. But it has a downside, namely when those endowments are linked to the stockmarket and a little matter of a GFC comes barrelling into town.

Across the Atlantic the UK museum sector which relies predominately on public sector funding has fared better so far. They of course are wondering what now happens with the new coalition government in power, but the Conservatives went to the general election proclaiming in David Cameron’s words ‘ Our culture is second to none’. Nick Clegg ( now Deputy PM) had stronger words ‘ Arts funding is a duty not an option for any government’, and even the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne got in on the act speaking at the Tate last December, when he said ’The arts play a vital role in our communities, helping to bind people together and create real social value.’ Whilst it is clear there will be cuts to their funding of as much as 20% , as no part of the UK ‘s public sector will be able to avoid such if the UK £160 billion deficit is going to have any chance of being reduced, there are also ways in which this may be ameliorated. The National Lottery was set up to fund heritage, the arts, sport and charities, and although its funds have been siphoned off to all sorts of other causes given its phenomenal success, there are signs that the government will restore it to its original purpose. There is also talk of a Museums and Heritage Bill which would give national museums greater financial independence.

But there are swings and round abouts with such matters and the result of the massive endowments that US museum directors have to manage means they also (by UK and Australian standards) can earn massive salaries. James Cuno earned US$626,000 last year up 46% from the previous one, no doubt so he didn’t get left behind his colleagues, such as Boston Museum of Fine Arts director, Malcolm Rogers on $719,000 or the Met’s Phillipe de Montebello ( since retired) on $818,000. But they are eclipsed by the star of the show, Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s MOMA, who earned $1.32 million last year ( salary $956,000, ‘retention bonus’ $191,000, ‘performance bonus’ $200,000, pension $262,000 plus rent free condo benefit valued at $336,000) , and this included a voluntary pay cut due to the recession taking his earnings down from, wait for it, $1.95 million the previous year.

So it’s not entirely surprising, returning to the Chicago Art Institute, that a blog comment on the article reads "When the director is making over $700,000 a year, and accepts a pay raise when the rest of the staff goes for years without raises, and scores of employees are losing their jobs, the whole thing seems shameful and embarrassing".

Haven’t I heard that comment from the corporate world recently?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Olokun Head (and museum fakes)

The art world is full of fakes, some of which surprise us and are ‘discovered’ to be genuine. Perhaps the most difficult artist to authenticate is Salvador Dali, because it seems clear he himself was helping to create his own fakes. He is thought to have signed some 280,000 sheets of blank paper in his lifetime, and in fact signed his name so many times that it deteriorated to the extent that experts now have great difficult authenticating the real thing.

But fakes in the museum world are much less common (we think!). “Piltdown Man” is perhaps the most famous. Thought to be the fossilised fragments of a skull and jawbone of a previously unknown human when collected in a gravel pit in 1912 in Piltdown, Sussex, it was not until 1953 that it was exposed as a forgery, being the lower jawbone of an orang-utan deliberately combined with the skull of a modern human.

Piltdown is a classic example of academics desperate to find the missing link between apes and humans overcoming sheer common sense. The man now thought to have perpetrated the fraud was Charles Dawson, a local antiquarian collector. Checking his details in Wikipedia I was amazed to find he made an artform of such finds including such wonderfully named items as the Beauport Park Roman Statuette (a hybrid iron object), the Brighton ‘Toad in the hole’ (a toad entombed in a flint), the so called ‘Shadowy figures’ on the walls of Hastings Castle and the Bulverhythe Hammer. Tell me more, please!

On a more serious note the latest edition of the Art Newspaper ( www.theartnewspaper.com ) carries an interesting account of the Olokun Head (“Is the Olokun Head the real thing?”). The life size Olokun head was found by a German anthropologist Leo Frobenius in 1910 near Ife, Nigeria. The bronze is believed to be the head of a king, made about 1400, but at the time of discovery was considered to be too great a masterpiece to have been created by African hands, a reflection of attitudes at the time. It was seized almost immediately by the British Colonial administration on the grounds it was sacred and eventually placed in the Ife Museum.

But in 1948 when it travelled to the British Museum it was declared to be a replica. Was it always a fake therefore, or was the original copied either by Frobenius before handing it over, or before it reached the Ife Museum, with the original sold to a European North American Collector?

However now that it is on show again (“The Kingdom of Ife” currently at the British Museum and due to travel to 4 museums in the US in 2011), there are questions being raised as to whether it is actually the original after all. The BM’s conservators are undertaking X-ray fluorescence and thermo luminescence testing and microscopic analysis to determine the precise metal content, the casting technique, and the form of tools used.

A copy or the real thing? Hopefully all will soon be revealed.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cultural rights and the future of museum visiting

It is a given that almost all museums are seeking to broaden their audiences and increase their visitation numbers. Some are more successful at this than others, but the GFC cannot disguise the fact that worldwide in broad terms those numbers just aren’t improving, and indeed may be going backwards. And it is not just our sector of the arts. US statistics from the National Arts Index show that overall attendance at museums, galleries, orchestral, dance, opera and theatre performances declined across the board by about 10% over the last ten years. And a key cause of this can be laid at the door of arts funding which in the corresponding period has dropped in relative terms by c 25%.

So I read with great interest an article in the Spring 2010 Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts on what we might be able to do about this. I must admit to being a very inactive Fellow of the RSA, but a great (tacit) supporter of all it stands for and in particular its’ thought provoking Journal. This article is by Bill Ivey from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Ivey’s basic premise is that the argument for public investment in culture is unable to compete with education, healthcare and the environment. The old arguments for the value of the arts to public policy have gone as far as they can, and culture is increasingly seen as something governments get around to funding with the money left over after everything important has been paid for.

We’ve seen this most starkly in Australia in WA where the state is riding its second mining boom, and yet the arts, having missed out on any benefit from the first, is now seeing funding cut back further.

So what does Ivey suggest we do about it? Firstly he suggests we start from the premise that artistic heritage and creative practice are at the heart of a wide range of human engagements that are critical to both happiness and the workings of democracy. And secondly we redefine our sector to encompass an arena of human activity that is just as important as healthcare and the environment, namely our 'expressive life'. This has both a past (our heritage) and a present (everything from ethnic and community traditions, and social dancing to amateur music making and arts education in and out of schools).

Expressive life is much harder to marginalize than the arts, as it engages so many components of our daily lives (and therefore our legislative and social framework). Ivey then comes up with an innovative and (I think) terrific concept of a Cultural Bill of Rights that can justify the pursuit of a vibrant expressive life as a democratic public good. It might read as follows:
1. The right to our heritage – the right to explore music, literature, drama, painting that define both our nation’s collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
2. The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life – through their art and incorporation of their artistic visions in democratic debate.
3. The right to an artistic life – to the knowledge and skills to play an instrument, draw, act, dance, compose, design.
4. The right to know and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived through the centuries
5. The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.

Will it wash with funding bodies? Certainly it would be so energizing to see public debate around the issues, as the current picture is one of minimal debate, and increasing marginalisation in forward funding for our collecting institutions. That in turn is going to do nothing to increase visitation.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Telling stories by conservation

I have long been an advocate of the power of story telling in both justifying the process of conservation and also in achieving engagement with wider audiences. Conservation per se just to extend an artwork or object’s life in perpetuity may be ethically the right thing to do, but it is rarely going to grab the attention of funding bodies or the public.

Driven by the very real concerns of reducing support for conservation training (both the Textile Conservation Centre and the V&A/Royal College of Arts in the UK closed last year), the International Institute for Conservation ran another in its’ successful series of dialogues in January 2010 entitled ‘Conservation in Crisis – communicating the value of what we do’. This has just been posted on the IIC website. I must admit to some bias on the value of these dialogues as I am Vice President of IIC, and am strongly supportive of the Institute taking a more active advocacy role.

And what comes out clearly from the dialogue is that storytelling is a significant key to engaging a wider audience, and one that conservators continue to be poor at exploiting. Whilst a range of programs providing public access to conservation, including opening up labs to guided tours and having conservation treatments carried out in public galleries, have had some success, as soon as conservators commit themselves to paper, they become dead boring to anyone but other conservators (and let it be honestly said, often to them as well). And this is generally because they focus on the treatment rather than the story behind the object that is revealed.

There is a great example of this given by one of the dialogue participants about a cross that was conserved in Venice. The conservators involved when explaining their work talked at length about the details of the treatment undertaken, yet failed to mention that what was really interesting about the cross is that for two hundred years it was carried before condemned prisoners on their procession to the scaffold, i.e. it was one of the last things such people saw on earth.

I have just attended a meeting of the International Polar Heritage Committee in Punta Arenas, Chile, and one of the speakers was bewailing the focus on the Heroic era and the explorers of the early Twentieth Century, at the expense of the conservation of the heritage of the early nineteenth century whalers and sealers in Antarctica. The simple explanation is that the story telling around the explorers has been much more successfully told than that of the whalers and sealers, and as a result the funds have flowed for conservation work for the former. Admittedly it helps having some substantial huts and their 15,000 artifacts as compared to a few difficult to discern archaeological remains on which to hang them

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Blockbuster noise in Canberra

So the National Gallery’s Masterpieces from Paris on loan from the Musee D’Orsay has finally closed after a marathon all night opening and an incredible 470,000 visitors. It has eclipsed the National Gallery of Victoria’s previous Australian exhibition attendance record of 371,000 for the 1994 exhibition of, you guessed it, Masterpieces from the Musee D’Orsay. I have blogged before about how good this exhibition was, and I am glad to see what a benefit it must have been to the Gallery’s bottom line. By my calculation, given the break even point was c 250,000 visitors (according to Ron Radford in the SMH April 2nd 2010,) the extra 220,000 visitors at $25 a pop must have provided a neat $5.5m gross profit.

But it raises again the question of the benefits or otherwise of blockbusters. I always used to think that blockbusters started with the Tutankhamen Exhibition at the British Museum in 1972, but for an indepth view of how long they have been around read The ephemeral museum: Old Master paintings the rise of the art exhibition By Francis Haskell.

Haskell shows that the first real blockbuster was the Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam in 1898, though certainly King Tut at the BM eclipsed all records with an incredible 1.7 million people seeing it over 9 months at an average of 7,000 a day. Other outstanding numbers have come from Monet at the Royal Academy in 1990 (658,000), and Titanic at the Florida International Museum in 1997 (830,000).

In terms of their pros and cons, check out a good summary in a paper that David Fleming ( Director of National Museums, Liverpool) gave at ICOM Seoul in 2004. Fleming identifies the pros as:
1) Lots of people come
2) Visitors get the chance to see things brought together, possibly for the first and only time
3) Blockbusters attract new visitors to the museum/gallery, who hopefully will return
4) They attract media coverage, raising the profile of the museum/gallery, and sponsorship
5) They make money ( not a given, but in the National Gallery’s case, lots of it)
6) They promote creativity and scholastic excellence amongst the museum/gallery’s staff.
And the cons as:
1) Blockbusters present a narrow range of subjects and seldom shed new light on history or art history
2) They lead to a dumbing down of the museum and its message, being developed primarily for entertainment rather than educational/cultural value
3) The necessary sponsorship can have unintended negative consequences for the museum
4) The actual experience of blockbusters is a poor one as success leads to overcrowding – this in turn means there can be no meaningful experience, and may dissuade repeat visits
5) The staff effort in mounting them distracts from their core work
6) Blockbusters create a treadmill, raising expectations amongst sponsors, media and the public which may be impossible to meet (interestingly Brian Kennedy, the previous director of the National Gallery dispensed with them , partly for this reason, having inherited a tradition of blockbusters from his predecessor Betty Churcher, fondly remembered as ‘Betty blockbuster ’)
7) Their success may persuade public funding bodies to reduce their support

I’m a blockbuster fan, I must admit, and I’m glad that the National Gallery can justifiably bask in the media and financial glory of this show. But at the same time they need to be acutely aware of the last two points.