Wednesday, January 27, 2010

International Museum exhibition standards – what exactly are they?

I am always intrigued by the statement that a museum is building new exhibition space to ‘international standards’. For instance the UK National Maritime Museum (headed by former Powerhouse Museum director Kevin Fewster, with his deputy director at the Powerhouse, Kevin Sumption now head of exhibitions) is building a new wing which will include an 'international standard special exhibitions gallery'. Likewise the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery is creating a major exhibition gallery for Temporary exhibitions, “providing approx. 1000m2 of exhibition space to international museum standards”.

Some years ago we were the conservation consultants for the revamp of the Ipswich Regional Art Gallery in Queensland, which included providing for ‘AAA’ exhibition space. We were never quite sure what this meant, but provided specifications for the environmental controls that ensured they could operate to the tight parameters of international loan conditions, and had a series of alarm and back up alarm systems which identified when conditions strayed from these.
Whilst these environmental controls were not at the time identified with alphabetical ratings, the work of David Grattan and Stefan Michalski at the Canadian Conservation Institute has brought attention to the 5 classes of controls (AA, A, B,C and D) that are delineated in the ‘Museums, Archives and Libraries” chapter in the bible on these issues , the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers Inc ( ASHRAE) Handbook. Thus ‘AA” exhibition space is required to have short term fluctuations of no more than +/- 5% RH off a set point of 50% and +/- 2C off a set point of between 15 and 25C. No seasonal fluctuations to RH are allowed, but up or down 5C seasonal temperature changes are allowed.

So far so good, but what I wondered are the broader non environmental international standards. I turned first to the Museums Australia National Standards for Australian Museums and Galleries. This worthy document is about helping museums get their act together on a whole range of issues, from staffing to storage, but speaks only in generalities about having stable and secure exhibition areas.

So I asked the question of some of my colleagues in the museum/gallery sector. They responded that the details of required standards are locked up in facility reports and loan agreements, and inevitably vary according to the value and fragility of the loans. At the top end, these are goverened by the Federal Government’s indemnity guidelines for high value and high risk exhibitions, covering such things as security, packing, and condition reporting. At a broader level, exhibition areas require appropriate floor loadings, ceiling loadings, fire suppression systems and flexible space to be deemed of ‘ international’ standard.

But at the end of the day, interestingly, there is no document to which one can point where the standard required for an ‘international exhibition space’ is identified.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I come (just) from the era when curators were top of the pile in the museum hierarchy. And I remember well when Elizabeth Esteve Coll, as director of the V&A Museum, London in the early 1990s took a broom to that hierarchy and restructured the staff, demoting the all powerful ‘keepers’, as head curators were called at the V&A. She was roundly condemned and ultimately hounded out of office, but she had started an inexorable process.

Bear in mind these were the days when there were no visitor services staff, probably no marketing staff or education staff, and certainly no Heads of IT, but today’s museum/gallery curator does not carry anything like the clout he or she would have done 20 years ago. Whilst there remain highly erudite occupants of curatorial roles in collecting institutions throughout the country, there is a move to generalist curators as against the specialist, with the result that technical in-depth subject knowledge is now more likely to be found at a university than at a museum.

So what is the role of the modern curator? I fell upon a recent article in the English National Trust’s ABC Bulletin entitled "The Curator: No-sayer, custodian, interpreter, impresario or host?" particularly as it involved a conversation with the Chairman of the Trust, Simon Jenkins. Jenkins is a most interesting bloke , a journalist and former editor of The Times and author of the popular 1000 Best Churches and 1000 Best Country Houses. He had been somewhat critical of the Trust before becoming Chairman, including describing their curators as "no-sayers, keepers of screens, blinds and padlocks".

But his comments in this article on the role of curators is positively inspiring. I quote: “The Latin root of curator is intriguing, a mix of care, anxiety, management and love. The curator liberates the sprit of a property and is the person most likely to understand its genius. The curator by virtue of background and education brings to a property an educated eye. In the case of fine houses, it must be hard for those without that eye fully to read their genius loci. Only the curator can release their stories. It takes confidence to grasp a room and so present it as to make it a moving experience for a visitor to walk through. Impresario is the right word, implying the skills of stagecraft.”

To my mind this approach applies equally to curators in museum and galleries as historic house museums. Curators are the conduit to the knowledge about the collections for which they care, and it is their responsibility to open up and reveal the stories that these collections tell. Freed of most of the management responsibilities that curators had twenty years ago, they must now be all about maximising access to their collections whether through exhibitions or on-line, and telling their stories.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Museum Directors – changing of the guard

No sooner have I cited the eminent scholar, Christopher Menz, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia as an example of a scholar director, than he chooses not to renew his contract after 5 years at the helm. The reason Menz gives is that state funding is inadequate to run the Gallery at a professional level. John Mcdonald (the art journalist and formerly senior curator at the NGA) has picked this up and delivered a broadside at the general paucity of gallery funding in SMH today.

Whilst I am sure John has a good point, I am not buying into that discussion today. Of more interest are a couple of things:
1) The AGSA Chairman, Michael Abbott was clearly put out that Menz did not consult him before resigning and, reading between the lines, is not close to Menz. That may partly be because Menz directly criticizes the Premier, Mike Rann, for not recognising the need for more ongoing funding, and Abbott in his role as a QC is currently representing Rann in a defamation action against Channel 7. That is always going to be a problem for a state/national gallery if the director and chair are not in alignment. The excellent recently published book on the history of the National Gallery, London by Charles Saumarez Smith is a fascinating read about this very issue of director/trustee tension, particularly pertinent as Saumarez Smith resigned as director in 2008 as a result of clashes with his Trustees.
An example of where it works well is the Edmund Capon (director) and David Gonski (Chair) relationship at AGNSW.

2) In regards to his successor, there seems to be a current trend to recruit museum directors in our region from the UK. Just before Christmas Te Papa announced that their new director (after the tragic death last year of Seddon Bennington whilst hiking) is to be Michael Houlihan, Director General , National Museum of Wales. Almost at the same time the WA Museum announced that their new director is to be Alec Coles, Director of Tyne and Wear Museums in the UK. And I understand that the replacement for Craddock Morton at the National Museum is unlikely to be appointed until mid year and is likely to be from overseas.

Let me hasten to add I see nothing wrong with this. Some of our great directors have been from the same source, notably Edmund Capon (AGNSW) and Patrick Greene (Museum Victoria), and it is unlikely the Powerhouse Museum would ever have been built with out the forcefulness and personality of Lindsay Sharp ( who went onto the Royal Ontario Museum and the UK Science Museum).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Vale Thomas Hoving and the role of museum director

I see Thomas Hoving the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1967 to 1977 has died (SMH 29th December 2009). I still consider his book about those years at the Met (“Making the Mummies Dance”) to be the best yarn about life at the top of a great museum, particularly as it was written at a time when the Met was flush with money for acquisitions and also coining the term blockbuster exhibitions. It reads like a good detective novel as Hoving jets around Europe tracking down acquisitions and exhibitions with all the related intrigue.

Interestingly he indulged in a fair bit of deacquisitioning (see my previous blogs on this here and here) to fund these, no doubt in the days before the Met had a policy on such being largely at his personal whim. As the SMH Obituary points out he almost lost his job in the process, selling off important modern paintings to fund the purchase of a Velazquez painting.

It’s got me thinking about the role of directors of museums – should they be showmen or scholars? Hoving was a showman, as was largely his recently retired successor Philippe de Montebello. However his successor is an English scholar and sculpture specialist Thomas Campbell. Michael Brand, the Australian director of the Getty is in the same mould of scholar, now overseeing a 25% reduction in the Getty’s operations - not of his own making I hasten to add. Across the Atlantic, the new director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny is a scholar, who succeeded a more publicity conscious (if not actual showman) director Charles Saumarez Smith.

In Australia we see a slightly different type of director in the form of bureaucrat – for instance Dawn Casey at the Powerhouse Museum, Frank Howarth at the Australian Museum and Craddock Morton at the National Museum – all public servants in government departments in former lives. But we also have the showman in the form of the odd sock wearing Edmund Capon at the AGNSW (though he is an Asian scholar of some note), and the scholars with Christopher Menz at the Art Gallery of SA, and Stefano Carboni at the Art Gallery of WA.

Carboni incidentally just to take us back to where we started, came from the Met where he was curator of Islamic Art.

Showman or scholar (or bureaucrat)? Not sure what makes a great director, but probably a mix of all three. What is clear is that great museum/gallery directors are very few and far between.