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