Monday, October 25, 2010

UK Museum cuts

In Istanbul two weeks ago my colleagues who work at the British Museum were telling me that contingencies were in place to deal with up to 40% budget cuts. That would have meant a substantial down sizing of staff as well as a host of other cuts to programs. So amidst the general devastation of nearly half a million civil servants being laid off over the next four years, the budget cuts announced by UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne on Wednesday were remarkably supportive of the museum sector. The free museum entry programme in place for the national museums has been maintained, the extensions to the British Museum and Tate Modern confirmed, and even the highly successful Renaissance in the Regions Program renewed. So the cuts that did come in the region of 15-17% were greeted with a quiet sigh of relief.

How has the museum sector managed to state its case so well? My view is that in the UK at least the national museums (on which the strength of the sector is built) have entered a golden age of late, abuzz with visitors from dawn to dusk and frequently into the evening, with strong educational programs, regular talks and concerts, good cafés and restaurants and truly finding a new vocation as space where people want to meet. Let’s hope that they can cope with these cuts with a minimum of effect on the ongoing development of what they have achieved.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sculpture around town(s)

Sydney’s public sculptures have come alive in a highly colourful way courtesy of some rather fabulous dressing coordinated by Michelle McCosker. Working with the City of Sydney and us (International Conservation Services) she has dressed 8 of Sydney’s best known public bronzes in highly colourful ways as part of the Sydney Statues: Project!  My favourite is William Bede Dalley, a past Lord Mayor of Sydney of somewhat portly form, who is normally known as The Green Man due to the colour of the bronze. Now he looks as though he has walked off the set of the musical ‘Wicked’. Check out more on our blog "Sustaining your heritage".

But wait - there’s more. Our first Aussie saint, Mary McKillop (well almost – the formal sainthood is granted this week end by the Pope in Rome) is already commemorated with a new bronze outside St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. I rather like it. It’s by Melbourne sculptor Louis Laumen.

And finally when I was in London last month I came across the latest Fourth Plinth sculpture which is an intriguing ship in a (plastic) bottle. Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, apparently celebrates both Nelson's success at Trafalgar and the postcolonial multi-ethnic mix and mingle of Britain today. The spot has become probably the hottest place to exhibit in international sculpture. A short list of 6 artists has just been selected, from which the sculpture to stand on the plinth during the London Olympics in 2012 will be chosen. "It's that time again," said London's mayor, Boris Johnson, "when the art world braces itself for a spurt of bold ideas for what is surely the premier public art spot in Britain. This is the chance for today's most exciting artists to create something in one of the most historic and traditional settings imaginable. We can only guess what they will come up with, but I have no doubt it will get everyone talking."

I am all for using empty plinths in this way. In 2007 we organised the NZ artist Michael Parekowhai to exhibit his ‘bouncer’ on the granite plinth in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney whilst its’ normal occupant, George Lambert’s Lawson Memorial was on loan to the National Gallery in Canberra.

The pictures below show Lawson in position, and then after dismantlement viewing with some disdain the usurping of his position by the bouncer.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, October 8, 2010

Melbourne Museum Musings

Last week I was embedded in Melbourne at the annual Museums Australia conference. 600 museos from around the country having a good chinwag is probably the best way to describe it. As always the real value was in the catching up with friends and colleagues, but there were also a couple of stand out papers, most notably from Professor Richard Sandell, head of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and Professor Stephen Heppell. To get a feel for Heppell check out his website, and you will get some idea what he is like. A man who clearly is at the top of his field in the on-line educational world, consulting to governments around the globe, and a most engaging speaker. As his web site says, part of his job is ‘ horizon scanning’ (I like that term) for the UK Government on future directions for educational policy.

Well he certainly gave us a good snap shot of what he has spotted on the horizon. Let me try and summarise:

  • our children are growing up as part of the post-Google generation that live in a world of social media, where emails are something that ‘Dad does”
  • current teaching modes are artificial and directly detrimental to learning. The concept of having 40 minute lessons with a bell at the end and then retuning onto the next subject for the next 40 minutes is vastly inefficient, when compared to studying a single subject for a whole morning
  • technical journals, particularly those that are peer reviewed are just not keeping up with current trends as the time lag ensures they are out of date even before they hit the newsstands
  • to understand what museum spaces might be like in 15 years we should look at what is happening on-line now, as this will show us
  • the future lies more in the ‘doing’ (verb) than the being (noun). It will not be about who we are but what we do that defines us.
  • taking shoes off for kids has a huge positive impact on their learning ability and concentration (isn't that interesting!)
  • every turned off mpa/iPod/iPhone device or equivalent represents a turned off child and an opportunity to learn lost
He finished by telling us that we are about to have the most fun ever over the next 10 years, particularly in museums. Every object tells a story - it just needs that narrative released and its’ context revealed.

Bring it on, I say!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

IIC and Istanbul (2)

A week in Istanbul for the IIC Congress really provided little more opportunity than to soak up the flavour of the place. There is so much to do and see there, and one gets the feeling that it is an increasingly confident place economically ( though still fragile politically I understand) . One American friend commented that where new furniture in the US used to say Made in China it now says Made in Turkey.

It was therefore particularly opportune that we had a key note address delivered (admittedly by video) by Turkish Nobel prize laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk. I must admit to not having heard of him but am busy making amends by reading his wonderfully complex Name of the Rose type book called ‘ My Name is Red’. Pamuk is probably most famous for his autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the City in which he sees the melancholy longing of hüzün as the hidden key to Istanbul. Hüzün is a Turkish word whose Arabic root (it appears five times in the Koran) denotes a feeling of deep spiritual loss but also a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” Pamuk saw in his childhood hüzün manifested by the slow collapse of the once powerful Ottoman empire hanging like a pall over the city and its citizens. Written in 2004, his book reveals how far the city has moved in the last 6 years, and Pamuk’s address to the Congress was all about how in the new confidence that city now shows, there is real danger that the past will be wiped out.

And his key note address was contextually perfect for the Congress as it allowed delegates to get in the space for a number of papers on how fragile is this ancient part of the world especially when assailed by the joint forces of development and tourism. High profile sites whether they be the Pyramids, Petra or the Acropolis will always attract international attention and therefore the support and funding of such bodies as the World Monuments Fund, the Getty etc, but these are but a few of the thousands of heritage sites around the Eastern Mediterranean that need protection and conservation.

We heard about the high profile sites, whether it was control of biodeterioration on the monuments of the Acropolis, or conserving twelfth century illuminated manuscripts at St Catherine’s Monastery, Mt Sinai, a project initiated by no less than the Prince of Wales! But we also heard about many less famous sites, such as entertainment rooms in rich Syrian merchants’ houses of the 17th and 18th century, known as Damascene rooms which display a particularly fine form of painted wood panelling. One of these rooms has now been re-constructed at the Met in New York and another known as the Ottoman Room in the Museum of Islamic Arts in Kula Lumpur. And to set these in context, we also heard from one of the few professional conservators working in Syria about his work trying to conserve the remaining 200 or so rooms that survive in Damascus – a fascinating and ultimately complimentary series of papers.

IIC Congresses are for my part a confirmation of why I work in this fascinating and complex field. Unlike the equivalent conferences run every three years by the Committee for Conservation of ICOM, which are based around a series of working group meetings, these Congresses are not so much about coming away with detailed information on how to tackle one’s next conservation project. They are about a reaffirmation that the conservation sector’s strength lies in our ability to learn from the experiences of other specialists outside our chosen field. Thus we deepen our conservation knowledge, and are able to apply this broad view to the benefit of our next project. We shall meet again in Helsinki in two years hence.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director