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