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.