Monday, March 22, 2010

Curators, curators

I always enjoy a good obituary, and there was a great one published on March 11th in the Times on Lionel Lambourne, former Keeper of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Lionel was clearly one of the old style of curators that used to make museums such attractively quirky places to work, and sadly no longer exist. To give you a taste of this, Lionel was apparently equally at home discussing the work of Arts and Crafts deisgners (his specialist area), as the history of the circus or the depiction of the giraffe in art. He lectured under the maxim "a good lecture or exhibition ought to contain something to offend everyone". The achievement of which he was most proud was the creation of the V&A staff pantomine. Get the picture?? As the obituary concludes "few great scholars and curators can have left such a legacy of laughter". Vale Lionel Lambourne and all that you stood for. Do dig out his full obituary - it is well worth the read.

And it got me thinking about the role of the modern curator, about which I have blogged before . Gone are the days when the curator was the top of the heirarchical museum pile, with most directors being drawn from their midst. Most curators are now generalists, often changing to positions in other parts of the sector. So I noticed with some amusement a recent article in HK-Magazine entitled the ‘Curse of the Curators’ on how poor musuem attendance in Hong Kong is being put down to the very strict way that curatorial paths progress in Hong Kong, stifling innovation.

I enquired of Andrew Simpson, who directs the Musem Studies Program at Macquarie University how many of his graduates are finding employment in the sector. He replied that at least 60% of post grad students are finding sector work within a year of completion, but the numbers are not so good for graduates. Andrew believes this is partly due to the rapid rise of museum studies programs in Australia over the least decade (second only to biotech degree programs apparently) and also interestingly to some resistance to professionalisation in some parts of the sector. I must explore this resistance more, as apparently there are some papers on it.

In the US there was an article in a recent post-gazette entitled "A fuzzy picture: US jobs projections for curators leave museums scratching their heads". In summary, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest curators are among the professions projected to show much faster than average employment growth. But museum directors cannot see how this growth is going to be funded as their budgets are being almost universally cut. Curators have even been laid off by the Met and the Getty. In addition there is a view that, courtesy of the net, much of the work of curators can now be undertaken from their desk rather than traveling the world researching and organising exhibitions, so if anything, fewer curators are needed. The discrepancy partly seems to come from the fact that the data was gathered pre GFC and was predicated on museums remaining financially healthy and visitor attendance good.

Are museums the lesser for the diminution of the role of curator? Certainly their internal knowledge base is less, but the reality is that it is all a numbers game these days, and if directors do not need specialist curators to keep the visitors coming through the doors, then the curators will get sidelined.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hanging out in Museums

I see the issue of Edmund Capon’s retirement from the Art Gallery of NSW is in the news again. Not that Edmund has said he is going to retire, but rather that at 69, the view is that it is probably going to be this year that he feels he has achieved enough. His language indicates this namely "We’re getting to that stage where I think the pace of evolution in the AGNSW needs a bit of a kick up the bottom and maybe, you know, I’m holding that up". The potential successors are already being rolled out from the art gallery director recycling file, including Michael Brand, ex-National Gallery of Australia and Art Gallery of Qld and more lately director of the Getty Museum, from which he resigned 4 years into his 5 year contract last month, Christopher Menz, who recently resigned from the Art Gallery of SA (see previous blog) , Tony Ellwood current director of the Art Gallery of Qld and Timothy Potts, ex director of the National Gallery of Victoria, and currently director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Whilst all worthy candidates it would be good to see a few new faces from the younger generation of art curators being considered.

Edmund’s reign at AGNSW has been a highly successful one, but it was interesting to read of the critics already circling, albeit anonymously. One frontrunner for the job who asked not to be named was quoted as saying "there’s not nearly enough space and there’s too much of an ad hoc approach in which the Gallery tried to be all things to all people". Others argue it is geared to the casual tourist rather than artists, scholars and residents.

I’m not sure I agree with either. Yes there is always the need for more space but by moving the paintings store off site and opening up the space as the new John Kaldor Galleries, there has been a significant increase in exhibition space. And in terms of popularity with residents, there is no doubt that AGNSW is the place to hang out. I was there of an evening last month when the Gallery was open and it was chock a block with an enthusiastic crowd doing everything from exhibition viewing, and eating at the cafe to just hanging out.

And hanging out is an increasingly critical part of why successful museums are successful. AGNSW is lucky with its location – not sure I would like to hang out in Sydney at the Powerhouse or the Australian Museum for example, but that is helped by the way that the main space encourages engagement. It is a welcoming space, unlike, for example the foyer at the National Gallery in Canberra, or the Art Gallery of SA.

Hanging out is part of the social phenomenon of new museum going. James Christen Steward, the new director of Princeton University Art Museum has articulated this well. He believes museums should be a space for everyone, even those without the intellectual curiosity to look at the collections. "We need spaces in which other forms of community engagement can happen, where it’s possible for people from every walk of life to come together to hash out what’s needed to have a satisfying life". Steward identifies the building lay out as critical to this, but has also initiated a series of moves to aid the social process including
- re wardrobing the attendants
- opening until 10pm on Thursday nights
- getting colleges within the university to stage social events in the galleries
- more frequently changing exhibitions

Yes, it is easier for an art museum to do this than a natural history or science/ design museum, but not exclusively. Both the Natural History Museum in London and the American Museum of Natural History in New York have been trail blazers in this aspect of creating a socially welcoming environment.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Shroud of Turin – a conservation disaster

As a trainee conservator I was brought up on the story of the ‘ famous’ conservation disaster that the Elgin Marbles suffered at the British Museum in 1938. Famous it certainly was with the media breaking news of the ‘scandal’, followed by extensive questions asked about it in the House of Commons, the furore only really dying down due to the onset of the Second World War.
There is no doubt that serious and irreparable damage was done to the marbles at the hands of a British Museum mason and various labourers working under his charge. Quite who knew what amongst the BM’s keepers (as curators are called there) is unclear, but the weight of evidence is that it was a decision made by the mason himself to ‘clean up’ the marbles. What is clear is that the ‘cleaning up’ involved extensive use of copper chisels and wire brushes over a protracted period (the sculptor Jacob Epstein who first spotted the damage believed it had gone on for 15 months) resulting in loss of essential marks and most importantly the golden brown patination that Pentelic marble acquires when exposed to light over long periods. Luckily at least the mason and his team were stopped before all the sculptures had been cleaned.

Surely such a tragedy could not be allowed to happen again in this day and age. Yes, we may argue over the extent of conservation and how it is approached, witness the Sistine chapel, but such things are undertaken in the full light of international scrutiny. So it was with a sense of amazement and despondency that I came across an article in the latest news e-conservation magazine entitled The “Restoration” of the Turin Shroud: A Conservation and Scientific Disaster By William Meacham.

Amazement that I had not heard about this disaster before (Meacham published a book on it in 2005), and despondency that so recently as 2002 a conservation project on what is one of the great treasures of the world can have been so calamitously carried out. Do read the full story in the on- line magazine, but let me also summarise.

The Shroud is probably the world’s most famous textile. Believed to be the burial cloth of Christ, a sample of it was blind tested by a number of independent laboratories around the world in 1988, and the date of the Shroud identified as between 1260 and 1390 AD. As a result of this dating process, the methodology of which was widely questioned in Italy, a group of five textile conservation experts were brought together by the Catholic Archbishop of Turin to advise on the optimum preservation of the cloth, particularly how to protect it from Turin’s air pollution. Meacham was one of those five. By 2000, however only one of those five remained, the others having all resigned due to differences of opinion on the proposed preservation process, including Meacham.

Sometime between June and July 2002, the remaining textile conservation expert undertook a secret ‘restoration’ of the shroud, which involved removal of the 1532 patches and backing cloth added after fire damage at that time, and cleaning of ‘dust and residues’. Whilst this Swiss textile conservator seems genuinely to have believed she was doing the right thing, her techniques beggar description. Apart from handling the cloth all the time without gloves and beaming strong unfiltered light on it throughout the restoration (bear in mind part of the power of the Shroud is its faded negative image of a man), repairs undertaken by nuns in 1532 with great reverence and golden needles praying whilst they did so were discarded as being of no value, debris and dust, including vital pollen samples, was vacuumed off, and several dozen square centimetres of charred cloth around pre-1532 small burn holes scraped away.

Sadly the Vatican, despite petitioning, has not responded to a call for an international commission to be set up to examine all matters relevant to the Shroud’s conservation.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Visitor participation in museums

The wonderful Musee d’Orsay post-impressionism exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Australia really is a must-see experience, even for those who have seen the paintings in their home venue in Paris. Apart from so many iconic paintings being in one place at one time in Australia (apparently one wall alone has over $1 billion of artwork on it), one thing that stood out for me was the lighting. It is absolutely beautifully lit. None of that fried-egg-bright–painting-against-a-dark-background stuff. The walls are all washed with light and then the paintings themselves subtly picked out. It is all very unobtrusive until one realises how alive they all seem – apparently the director of the Musee d’Orsay commented on the fact himself. And a tip - go late on Friday or Saturday night as the exhibition remains open to 7pm after the main Gallery closes at 5pm and the crowds are much less.

The Director, Serge Lemoine, also praised the children’s room, saying that he really liked such an approach but it would be frowned upon in Paris as dumbing down the art. Developed by the head of education and public programs at the National Gallery, Peter Naumann, it has been a run-away success. Essentially he has reproduced (some in his own hand) various of the paintings such as the Van Gogh self portrait and Starry Night, and then encouraged children to have a go themselves. So they might create their own portrait, which then gets put in frame alongside the Van Gogh or collage more stars to put in the massively blown up starry night covering one wall. It has a great vitality to it!

And it led me to consider an interesting posting on Nina Simon’s blog on participation in museums. Nina has divided the museum sector into four, History museums, Art museums, Science centres and Children’s museums, and looked at what opportunities and challenges there are for participation. It is worth summarising, as it broadly ties in with my perceptions of such:

History museums
- Opportunities – best of the four for participatory projects such as story telling and crowd sourced collecting. Given the incredible popularity of genealogy also great places for visitor generated projects. And given their social content also good places for community dialogue.
- Challenges – validating visitor stories to ensure they are authentic and do not contain offensive views, and maintaining a narrative thread that is intelligible and enjoyable to visitors.

Art museums
- Opportunities – inspiring visitors to create their own art in response to what is on display (see NGA above). Providing participatory projects led by artists to encourage active social participation.
- Challenges – most art museums suffer from more separation between curatorial and education/public program departments than other forms of museums. Most curators do not want educational/participatory events included as they might distract from the aesthetic experience (see Lemoine’s response to what his French colleague would say above).

Science centres
- Opportunities – subject matter ideal for participatory projects and long history of interactivity, as well as widespread use by school groups as learning places.
- Challenges – can be lack of multiple perspectives offered, and controversial or complicated topics avoided as difficult to ensure they can be fun.

Children’s museums
- Opportunities – generally highly interactive and encouraging of participation to explore new ideas and narratives.
- Challenges – big issues around privacy concerns, taking photos and asking for personal data.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The trials of repatriation of national treasures

The recent decision of British Museum director, Neil Macgregor, to ‘delay’ the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran is an interesting one. On the face of it, this is due to the recent dramatic discovery in the BM’s stores of fragments of the same inscription. The Cyrus Cylinder is a clay cylinder dating from 539bc inscribed with a decree from the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great, and discovered in 1879 during an excavation in Babylon (now in Iraq) sponsored by the BM. The new pieces apparently assist with the reading of passages in the Cylinder that are either missing or are obscure, and therefore help to improve understanding of the cylinder, showing the declaration on it is much more than a standard Babylonian building inscription, and probably an imperial decree that was distributed around the Persian Empire. The BM has some 130,000 cuneiform tablets from Mespotamia, so you could say it is not surprising that it has taken this long to find one that cross references.

But the Iranians have been hassling for the loan of the cylinder for some time, threatening to cut off ties with the BM if they do not get it. This press release from Iran has itself shown what strong and complicated views there on the subject from the unreprintable to WHO ON EARTH DO THE IRANIAN GOVT AND PEOPLE THINK THEY ARE? THIS STONE BELONS TO IRAQ, BABYLON IS IN IRAQ NOT IRAN and Are you people kidding me? The British Museum is home to nothing but stolen treasures that remind us all of their horrible history of war crimes, colonization, and the fact that the world would be a much better place if they just stayed put on their island.

That was last October and all seemed to be resolved with a date for the loan finalised in December 2009, until the latest find of comparative material justified more time required for research purposes. The reaction from Iran has now become much stronger with a full scale diplomatic row, and potential downgrading of diplomatic relations. Despite the ongoing protestations from Macgregor that the BM is still committed to the loan happening later in the year, one cannot help suspect that he is seriously concerned that the Cylinder will never be returned once loaned.

Of course the Elgin marble returnees are making merry of his predicament. Websites such as Elginism (‘an act of cultural vandalism’), Marbles Reunited and The International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (headed by our own ex-ABC director David Hill) show just how much public pressure there is on the BM to repatriate parts of their collection.

I have written elsewhere that I believe the Elgin marbles should now be returned, as their legal acquisition was dubious, their care by the BM initially deplorable, their value to Greek culture immense and their ongoing preservation now assured in the new Acropolis Museum. But what a predicament it is, that you would not wish on any museum director, whose ultimate charge is the preservation and maintenance of their institutions collections not their dispersement to other organisations, however justifiable the reasons. And the demands are going to become greater not lesser as the Cyrus Cylinder has shown – it is not even listed in the BM’s hundred most important objects.

I was reminded of the same issue last week when in Hanoi to discuss the new National History Museum of Vietnam. Housed in a vast and fine new building (yet to be built) the Museum is planned to become the definitive statement about the history of Vietnam. That will surely mean there is demand for objects of their ancient Viet culture to be returned from museums across the world.