Monday, December 19, 2011

Environmental Guidelines

I recently blogged on the issue of AICCM’s environmental guidelines for museums and galleries, and the awards AICCM picked up for them at the Museums Australia conference in Perth last month, both in the Sustainability sector and also the overall award.

We are a bit embarrassed that they are not yet available for public dissemination, but the reality is that until the new standard is released in the UK, as a net borrower of artworks and objects, Australian museums and galleries must wait. We now understand that PAS 198 (the precursor to the new British Standard) is likely to be launched early next year. However there’s nothing easy in this space!

The driver for change has been that current recommended environmental standards for display and storage conditions in museums and galleries rely on significant amounts of energy to keep them constant. Internationally the museum sector is facing a number of challenges, namely: rising energy costs; reduced budgets; and community pressure to be more environmentally sustainable.

These challenges raise two broad questions:
  • what are the opportunities/issues around reducing energy use in collection climate control?
  • what are the resulting potential impacts on collections (sometimes referred to as the 'preservation equation')?
The current generation of museum professionals have grown up working to the internationally recognised and until recently unassailable standards of 20°C +/- 2°C temperature and 50% +/- 5 % relative humidity. It is these that we are looking to relax.

However the National Gallery in London came out last week with its own view on the issue saying that in fact they are looking to tighten the parameters rather than loosen them to 21°C +/- 1°C in winter and 23°C +/- 1°C in summer and 50% +/- 5 % RH. See their well reasoned argument and indeed a broader background to the issue here.

My strong view is that, although the National Gallery’s old masters may need these very tight parameters, very few other collections do, and that the broad push to get the general standard relaxed must continue.

It’s interesting to see in the same week as the National Gallery’s announcement that the data centre sector is also grappling with the same issues. Data centres use vast amounts of electricity to keep their banks of computers cool.

Apparently these data centres run at 18-21°C to avoid hot spots that might cause the computers to malfunction. Now it has been shown that there is unlikely to be any problem letting computers operate in an environment up to 37°C. Even by relaxing the climate level by 9°C an astonishing $2.16 billion in energy costs would be saved by the sector in the US alone.

Now that is serious money saved and of course serious carbon dioxide emissions too.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New technologies in the museum sector

A notable aspect of the recent Museums Australia conference in Perth was the extent of interest in new technologies. From the impact of the NBN to social media engagement, from virtual palaeontology to iPhone apps, there was hardly a parallel session which did not have a new technology paper. This is a significant change from the same conference only a couple of years ago, and judging by the numbers in each session, there is a real demand for knowledge in this area. Perhaps this is partly due to a fact that Michael Harvey, Head of Exhibitions at the Australian Museum, commented on in his paper, that from his experience museum visitors tend to be early adopters of technology and to use social media above the average of the general population.

I gave a paper in one of these sessions on the opportunities for Smartphones in museums co-authored with Seb Chan. This particularly reported on the latest thinking on Smartphone communication technologies, from QR codes, NFC (Near Field Communication), and Google Goggles to wifi (see my blog for more details). But we started by picking up on the recent New Media Consortium's Horizon Project which examined emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in education and interpretation within the museum environment (2011 Museum edition).

It’s worth repeating some of their key findings which include:
  • Increasingly, visitors and staff expect a seamless experience across devices. More and more, patrons want the experience of interacting with museum content using the device of their choice, wherever and whenever they choose to do so.
  • Collection-related rich media are becoming increasingly valuable assets in digital interpretation. Museums are beginning to see the value in developing formal strategies for capturing high-quality media documentation at every opportunity. Museums are embracing the opportunities provided by rich media to enhance multimodal learning both online and in the galleries. Video, audio, and animations are no longer seen as afterthoughts in interpretation but increasingly as necessary components of an interpretive plan.
  • Digitization and cataloguing projects continue to require a significant share of museum resources. Visitors expect to be able to readily access accurate and interesting information and high-quality media. This requires museums to plan strategically for the digitization and cataloguing of collections.
  • Improving our ability to measure impact using new digital technologies is a critical need. Museums are good at traditional program evaluation, but determining the impact of new technologies on knowledge, attitudes, skills is more challenging.
One of the issues that I constantly hit in major museums, as I talk to them about new technologies, is their reservation about investing in a technology that may soon be superseded. One that I have had my own reservations about are QR (Quick Response) codes. So I was not surprised to read that recent research in New York has confirmed their limitations. In summary it was found that although there was general awareness of the codes, and an understanding of how to make use of them, very few people actually expressed an interest in doing so, mostly because they felt they could access the information/links more easily (and more cheaply) in other ways. Seb has blogged most interestingly on the issue.

Whatever the technology it must always be seen as an enabler, only as good as the content behind it, and the stories being told through it. So it’s good to read in a recent blog by Bruce Wyman, formerly Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum, that evaluation has shown visitors are getting more from their experiences using technology aid in museums and learning more about artworks than if they did not have access to such. That must always be the driver.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, November 25, 2011

Museums Australia meeting in Perth

I spent last week in Perth with 600 fellow museum bods at the annual Museums Australia Conference. It was held at the splendiferous new Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre complex just north of the CBD, a great venue in terms of both the theatre itself and also the break out spaces, and Perth turned on some balmy weather to get us all in the mood. The conference was run jointly with Interpretation Australia, which was always going to appeal to me, as I believe strongly that one of the key reasons for our existence in this sector is to be able to tell the stories behind the objects we look after.

What did I come away with?

Some great papers (which I thought were to be posted on the MA website, but do not seem to be at present - I will explore further).
  • Susan Cross from the UK on the power of story telling, and the way in which people are looking for shared memories. Stories are contagious, namely by getting people talking they are more likely to pass them on. An inspirational speaker – you can get a flavour of her from a talk she gave in Scotland here.
  • Margaret Anderson from the History Trust of South Australia on the ‘About Time’ history festival, which in seven years has grown to a state wide festival of 500 events run by 300 organisations.
  • John Holden from the UK Demos Institute talking on the changing face of culture. John’s fellow Demos researcher, Sam Jones had talked at the AICCM conference in Canberra in October (see my blog), and their outputs are always worth reading/listening to. John’s angle this time was that creative culture has suffered from market failure, i.e. that not enough people are prepared to pay sufficient amount to support it, so it relies on government subsidies. In the long term this is unsustainable, and we need to move to a commercial model where the outputs are seen as providing a justifiable return on investment. This does not mean that there cannot continue to be government run models but that mainstream culture needs to get with the current generational aspirations in this radically different social, technological and political context of the 21st century.
A strong view that the mining royalties that are pouring into the WA Government treasury are about to be spent (finally) on a new WA Museum. Alec Coles, the recently appointed director, is clearly a man with a mission and appears to have the ear of government, judging by the relevant minister’s comments at the conference opening. Interestingly Alec said he was quietly pleased that the planned $450 million redevelopment of the Swan River powerstation as the new museum was canned as result of the GFC, as it would have been a disaster of a place for the Museum being so difficult to access.

A win for the work of the AICCM Taskforce on Environmental Guidelines for Museums and Galleries that I have been chairing. Not only did we pick up the MAGNA (Museums and Galleries National Awards) Sustainability Award but also the Overall Award. This is a great result as it gives us leverage into the senior corridors of power in museums and galleries to sell this message of the gains to be made by relaxing environmental parameters.

And finally the chance to view one of my favourite objects namely the Ife or Olokun Head from the British Museum (see my blog) It is part of a small but stunning exhibition currently at the WA Museum of treasures from the British Museum. If in Perth in the next few months, make a beeline to see it and the related objects. As always the real is much more spectacular than the image.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ignite the Power of Art

Understanding different visitor requirements is something I have recently blogged about, particularly the work of Gail Davitt at the Dallas Museum of Art. Gail has been in Australia for the last few days and gave a great talk at the Australia Council in Sydney.

What was really interesting was to understand the context in which DMA’s research was undertaken and how they reached the conclusions they did. As a reminder they concluded that there are four types of visitors namely:
  • Observers – those that stand back, having limited knowledge of art, preferring a guided experience
  • Participants – those that enjoy learning and the social experience of being in museums and galleries
  • Independents – those that are more confident with their knowledge and prefer independent viewing
  • Enthusiasts – those who are confident, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and comfortable looking at art
Gail first talked to the context, namely a Museum-wide view that it should seek to understand the triggers that get visitors to engage with art, hence the project title ‘Ignite the Power of art’.

The process involved 1) undertaking the research, 2) applying what was learnt, and 3) measuring the impact both on visitors and Museum staff.

  1. Research produced the above visitor category breakdown, with some interesting side issues, e.g. that 30% of the Observers (least engaged) category were members – why?
  2. Application involved everything from changing exhibition labels to provide for different levels of engagement to encouraging responses to exhibitions and using smartphones to deliver varying levels of interpretation
  3. Impact involved both a much greater level of collaboration between staff and visitors and more listening to the visitors’ voice, changing in branding and mission of the Museum, better collaboration between staff departments and a much greater appetite at the Museum for experimentation.
So the take-aways from the exercise Gail identified as:

  • Visitors now being perceived as individuals
  • A much deeper sense of understanding of the quality of the visitor experience by Museum staff
  • The research that DAM undertook, whilst applicable to other museums was also very institutional specific
Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, November 7, 2011

Museums and entry charges

The National Maritime Museum (NMM) in the UK has seen a ‘drastic ‘drop in visits since they put in place an entry fee ( surprise, surprise) according to the latest UK Museums Association Journal. Visitors dropped from 706,952 to 470,800, but the entry fee generated an additional £521,000.

Meanwhile the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto under new director Dr Janet Carding (ex Deputy director Australian Museum, Sydney and prior to that the Science Museum, London) has made an early call in her directorate to cut admission prices by up to 35%, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. Adult admission is now $15. Funding for the ROM is about 17% from visitor revenue, with 965,000 visitors in the last year. Janet is hopeful, based on survey results, that the reduction in admission will boost the numbers over 1 million.

Further south the opposite is happening with entry fee hikes going on (see two articles in The Art Newspaper). At the Met in New York prices have increased from $20 to $25, with MoMA following suit ($20 to $25) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lifting theirs from $20 to $22.

Three interesting issues here:
  1. Do the numbers around charging for admission add up? In the case of the NMM their visitors dropped from 706,952 to 470,800, but the entry fee generated an additional £521,000. At a simplistic level the 706,952 pre entry fee visits generated no income at the turnstiles, but say £1,413,900 at an average £2 net in retail and catering sales. Now with entry charges the 470,800 visits generated £521,000 in entry fees and at £2 net in retail and catering sales a further £941,600, totalling £1,462,600. Once you deduct the cost of selling tickets and the related infrastructure it looks pretty line ball to me. In the UK of course this is academic where the Government makes the call that national museums have to provide free entry. They have found that increased retail and catering income tends not to cover the extra cost of dealing with larger crowds.
  2. Is pushing up the price, as in the case of the Met and MoMA or bringing it down as in the case of the ROM likely to significantly affect visitor numbers? My guess is that in New York an extra $5 for those who were probably going anyway is not going to make that much difference, and based on the numbers staying the same, it will mean an extra $8m a year into the Met’s coffers. 10% of their annual budget (currently a whopping $320m) comes from admissions. Conversely in a less affluent city like Toronto my thinking is that reducing the entry fee will have less effect, as those deterred from coming at $22 may well still be deterred at $15.
  3. Are members harder to attract if a museum does not charge, due to the loss of incentive of being able to offer free entry to members? It appears that the answer is yes, witness the astonishing 133,000 members that MoMA now has, driven in part by local visitors wanting to return regularly.
What everyone does know is that when charging museums turn to the free entry model, the numbers go roaring up. The Indianapolis Museum of Art saw numbers rise from 185,000 to 462,000 in a year after free admission was introduced in 2006.

And finally the problem of the reverse is not always a financial one, witness the political ramifications for the British Museum considering introducing paid entry. The model they were looking at was to make UK citizens free and everyone else pay. Hang on said the Europeans, isn’t the UK a part of the EU, so Euro citizens should be free? And then the Greeks joined in, pointing out that one of the key justifications for the BM holding onto the Elgin marbles is that they can be freely seen by anyone. Complicated!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Conservation still matters

The AICCM Conference wrapped up in Canberra at the week end, and I think the profession came away feeling that we are in reasonable shape. This was particularly driven by the conference focus being on the bigger contextual issues of our work, rather than the detailed expose of individual object treatments.

Three areas for me are particularly worth commenting on:

• Vicki Humphrey, the newly appointed Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Australia gave a great paper on the gentle art of persuasion. Her point is that conservators have not always been good at communicating their message and stories, and the value of their work, and that we can use some linguistic tools to help us to do so. She drew on the Aristotelian theories of persuasion to help us think better about how we communicate. These include ethos, concerning the credibility and moral competence of the source of the message; logos, concerning the rationality and logicality of the message itself; and pathos, the emotions of the audience. In other words conservators need to be authoritative as a source of information, clear and logical in what we are saying and sensitive to the audience to whom we are delivering the information.

• MaryJo Lelyveld, Conservator of frames and Furniture at the National Gallery of Victoria looked into the future with a most stimulating paper on the future for the profession using scenario planning techniques, a process she is studying for a Masters degree at Swinburne University. MaryJo included some interesting thoughts on what we as conservators need to be prepared for in the cultural sector, including:

- gameification of educational and cultural heritage experiences

- increasing commercialisation of the GLAM sector

- increased damage from extreme weather events and terrorist attack

- rise in volunteerism both out of necessity and interest

• Conservators as proponents for changes in environmental standards in the GLAM sector . This is an area I am helping to drive through chairing the AICCM Taskforce on Environmental Guidelines for Museums and Galleries. What became clear at the conference is that a) the profession is fully on board with the issues involved, including the risk of damage resulting form relaxation of temperature and relative humidity parameters but b) the profession is also up to the challenge of working with organisations and the public to explain the necessity for these changes and also minimise what damage may result to our cultural collections.

Let me know if you would like to hear more on any of these issues.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why conservation matters

It’s that time again when Australian conservators get together for their bi-annual conference under the auspices of our professional body the AICCM. This year we are meeting at the National Library in Canberra, which is proving to be a great venue, not least because the Queen came past in her motor boat yesterday morning to see what we were up to!

The conference kicked off with an absorbing keynote address from Sam Jones of the UK Demos Institute. Sam has written widely on cultural issues, and is particularly known to conservators through his co authorship of ‘It’s a Material World’, which looked at the impending closure of the world renowned Textile Conservation Centre at the University of Southampton in 2006 (since reopened at the University of Glasgow). Apart from being very well connected in the museum and cultural world, Sam also has the advantage of seeing things from the other side, having been seconded for a year to work within the UK Government’s DCMS.

His fundamental point to us as conservators was that we have a key role to play in ensuring the health of society, because we deal in the long term values of social well being in a world of political and financial short termism.

He provided three examples of where we can play a role in communicating why conservation matters:
  • By telling the story of how and why things were made in the way they were. In a world of consumerism we can help keep alive the set of values that explain the importance of thinking about how things were made and where they come from. We do that already with food, e.g. Fair Trade products, and need to do it more with made things.
  • By getting policymakers to see culture differently. It is extraordinarily opportune that the Government’s call for submissions on the new Cultural Policy closes this week, and we have been busy as an Institute putting the case for the role conservation can play as part of this. Sam’s point is that cultural policymakers need to break free from existing structures and explore new spaces. As he says ‘Culture roots us in our past and enables us to imagine and explore our future”.
  • By standing for a wider ethos of care, a means of connecting with deeper values. We live in an age of great uncertainty whether it is through financial challenges or more deeply the rise of mixed culture societies. Showing value in the world about us and how cultural capital is the glue that hold communities together is a role that conservators can readily take.
Big picture stuff but a very stimulating way to start the conference. More soon.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Catering for different visitor types

One of the presumptions we tend to make is that all visitors to museums require the same experience, but even casual observation shows this is patently not the case.

I blogged last year about work that the Dallas Museum of Art had been doing in seeking to understand their visitors better and had ended up dividing them into four categories, namely:

- Observers – those that stand back, having limited knowledge of art, preferring a guided experience
- Participants – those that enjoy learning and the social experience of being in museums and galleries
- Independents – those that are more confident with their knowledge and prefer independent viewing
- Enthusiasts – those who are confident, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and comfortable looking at art, and who are most likely to actively participate in museum programs and be members.

So it’s good to hear that the initiator of the study that resulted in these categories, Gail Davitt will be the key note speaker at a Museum and Gallery Services Queensland seminar on November 2nd at the University of Queensland Art Museum. Gail will discuss how the Dallas Museum of Art changed its institutional culture and enhanced audience engagement and learning, using qualitative questions to uncover how visitors engage with art as well as their comfort levels in looking at and talking about art.

It has prompted me to look at others that have looked at the same issue and a colleague has pointed me towards Beverly Serrell’s 1996 book Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, in which she identified three rather than four categories of visitors, namely:

- Streakers who move quickly through exhibitions, scanning for points of particular interest, but rarely lingering for long. Since they paylittle attention to details, they may form broad impressions or take in bold messages, or they may traverse an exhibition without being affected at all.
- Strollers who move more slowly, paying more attention or less at various places. They are exposed to many more basic messages, and they may pick up details here and there.
- Studiers who are conscientious and diligent exhibit visitors who move very slowly through a gallery, trying everything and reading all of the text. Studiers often linger at single exhibits for long periods of time.

Any given visitor may express different behaviours at various times, perhaps streaking through a gallery for orientation before selecting places to stroll or study, or streaking past some exhibits and stopping at other points of interest.

Where this has particularly contemporary relevance is the discussion about rich media. I have blogged recently on the issue of how this is not going to be about the technology but the quality of the rich media content, and the onus this is putting on curators. It is clear that this content cannot be homogenised to one visitor type but is going to have to offer an appropriate experience to different categories of visitors, however they may be defined.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, October 7, 2011

Blockbuster exhibitions are still here

I found myself quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday on the subject of where museums should draw the line on popularist exhibitions. This has become particularly focused at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney where the recent ABBA exhibition has now been followed by one on the Wiggles with a major Harry Potter exhibition not far behind. Where should that line be drawn?

Check out my previous blogs on visitor numbers as a chart of success, how to keep those blockbuster visitors coming back, and the pros and cons of blockbusters The comments in the latter blog from Liverpool’s David Fleming are still very much relevant (financial benefits against potential dumbing down of the museum).

With Tutankhamen numbers at the Melbourne Museum already reaching an astonishing 650,000, the financial benefit to the Museum should be significant. The issue may be that there are only so many such exhibitions like this to go round, and one has to ask what comes next, after the progressively increasing success of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series ( Pompeii in 2009, Titanic in 2010 and now Tutankhamen in 2011).

But the reality is that blockbusters are here to stay, and although we may say there is perhaps more curatorial merit in a Tutankhamen exhibition than one on the Princess of Wales’ wedding dress (one of the Powerhouse’s recent successes), both reflect popular cultural interest. Indeed far from looking down our noses at the latter, it is interesting to reflect that the most successful exhibition in the V&A’s history was, wait for it, an exhibition of the Prince and Princess of Wales’ wedding presents in 1863!

Check out an interesting article that Giles Waterfield wrote on the subject in The Art Newspaper earlier this year (The death of the mega exhibition has been predicted for years. So why is it still very much alive?)

And a visit to the Powerhouse last week confirmed the place is currently buzzing with people (and strollers) visiting the Wiggles. Meanwhile the excellent Love Lace exhibition close to it was certainly attracting an audience that might not otherwise have been exposed to it. The popular and scholarly appeared to be working alongside each other.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Providing rich media content

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the challenges of providing ‘rich media ‘ to visitors, and after a whirlwind assessment of sites in Australia, the US and UK in the last fortnight can report on three technologies being used for this.

I talked about the QR code system being used at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney in that previous blog. QR code (abbreviated from Quick Response code) is a type of matrix bar code with fast readability and comparatively large storage capacity. Apps for scanning QR codes can be found on nearly all smartphones, allowing you to scan the image of the QR code to display text or open a web page in the phone's browser. The browser supports URI redirection, which allows QR codes to send metadata to existing applications on the device. At the Powerhouse the labels ( which are on every exhibit) for the Love Lace exhibition present like this:

Check Out Seb Chan’s blog on the initial interesting results at the exhibition.

At the Museum of London, Nokia has installed RFID tags on a number of exhibits to allow access to rich media. Accessing is similar to that at the Powerhouse as follows:

Turning up at the Museum last week, it was difficult to find out much information on the system. The core problem with it is that very few phones are currently fitted with the necessary NFC ( Near Field Communication) technology to be able to read the tags, so they remain frustratingly inaccessible to the vast majority of visitors. I was unable to access it and did not see anyone in my time at the Museum doing so.

This position may change as new phones appear with NFC functionality included, but it is already clear the new iPhone 5 due for release within the next couple of months will not have NFC.

Finally to the Getty to see Google Goggles in action. This is a downloadable image recognition app created by Google and currently mostly in use for prominent buildings and wine label recognition.

Google’s Santa Monica office approached the Getty to install the application for their collections, a process which once approved appears to have gone very smoothly stitching together the data on each artwork from the Getty’s content management system with the necessary image. Once you get over the self conscious issue of photographing an artwork in front of a guard ( and expecting to be reprimanded), it works really well. When the artwork is recognised (which happens in about a second) a series of options are available from more text to read, links to relevant sites, and, to my mind the most useful, audio commentary on the artwork from a variety of sources, e.g. curators and conservators. The only downside at present is that the visual recognition technology struggles with the softer images of watercolours and anything 3 dimensional.

What do I make of all these technologies?

1) The day of the humble label as the primary means of communicating information is in my view numbered. Whilst there will always be a role for them, being able to stand back from a painting or object and accessing information in the palm of your hand rather than squinting at a wall label is a massive advantage. And this is not just about the technology. The National Gallery of London did an exercise last year where they put a simple one line label on each painting to identify it and then provided each visitor with a little booklet in which was all further information. They had a great response as not only did everyone stand back from the artworks so viewing was easier, but also they could access the information under their own control.

2) Accessing information on a hand held device is therefore going to be the way to go, but the critical issue is again not the technology but what the information provided is going to look like. Once we are beyond labels, there is going to be an expectation that we can access more than that which a standard label provided, and that is going to need much more input from curators. The Getty Goggles exercise has proved it can be done – the rich media provided is excellent.
3) What in my view this is NOT about is providing distraction from the artwork or object being viewed, i.e. lengthy videos or lots of images of comparable material are for accessing after the visit not during it. Again the content model the Getty is providing is a good one on this

Check out some useful further comment at

And watch this space as I have no doubt there is going to be a great deal of action here in the near future as these technologies play an increasingly significant role.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Art Gallery Extensions

Art gallery extensions are often the defining mark of a director’s tenure, and even more defining if a ‘name’ architect can be brought into the equation. A brief visit to the US last week showed me a few.

First up Thomas Lentz, the director of the Harvard University Art Museums, which incorporates the Fogg, Sackler and Bush Reisinger collections has secured the services of the great I.M.Pei ( he of the Louvre glass pyramids) to build a major extension to the Fogg Museum, into which the other two collections will now be housed. This work is under way and it’s difficult to tell from the model how it will look, but as befits what are primarily study collections, each of the three collections gets its own study centre, complete with dedicated lift and curators and conservators on hand. This is a wonderful service beyond the resources of most municipal art galleries, and perhaps only mirrored by other great US university collections. I am told at the Yale Centre for British Art, for instance, you can walk in off the street and ask to see any painting in the collection, whether or not it is on exhibition.

In the same town over the Charles River, Malcolm Rogers , the director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has just completed a new wing. In this instance the architect was Norman Foster ( he of the British Museum covered central courtyard), and Foster has taken the same theme by infilling a central courtyard, off which the new wing now sits. While to my mind architecturally succesful but not outstanding , what it has achieved is a spectacular re-presentation of the MFA’s very substantial holdings of colonial American art that must be almost the best in the country. The justification for extensions is of course often that the collections cannot be properly displayed in their current exhibition spaces, and in this instance certainly the new space has been put to impressive use.

And finally to Chicago, where James Cuno in his last act as director of the Chicago Art Institute before taking up his role as President of the Getty, oversaw the building of the new wing designed by Renzo Piano. The Art Institute is a very substantial gallery with its 100,000 sq m of exhibition space only rivalled in the US by the Met. This extension whilst adding to this floor space is a knock out. Opened earlier in the year, it is a seriously beautiful space of white walls, glass, light coloured timber floors and a translucent mix of natural and artificial light throughout. The top floor is dedicated to a rehang of their European 20th century holdings which must rival any outside Paris, and I wandered round in a daze not only being in the presence of so many familiar artworks, but so gorgeously hung. The final triumph is coming round a corner to be presented with a floor to ceiling view of the Chicago skyline with Frank Gehry’s auditorium in the foreground, in the form of an artwork seen through slightly diffuse blinds.

If you have only time to visit one of these head for Chicago.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Conservation challenges - two key issues

Whilst in London last week for the IIC Council meeting, it was clear that there are two key issues the conservation profession is currently grappling with.

The first key issue is how we make decisions about the care of collections as we move to more relaxed environmental standards in museums. There is no doubt that we are going to have to move away from the current very tight parameters that are dictated for temperature, relative humidity and light levels, as these are environmentally unsustainable. But we cannot expect to do this without there being some collateral damage to objects.

Three questions arise.

Firstly, what is going to be acceptable damage? We use the term 'the damage equation' to describe the dilemma, but we have not yet assessed what is going to be our, and the community's, tolerance for seeing things deteriorate.

Secondly, how are we going to measure this damage? This is a somewhat easier question to answer in that it just requires us to develop both the technology, and as importantly, the language to describe this damage.   For instance the profession has already established one way of measuring levels of light damage (to get technical – a JNF, or ‘Just Noticeable Fade').

But this leads onto the third question, which is what is our role in deciding this? There has already been a benchmark set of one JNF per generation, i.e. every 25 years, but who are we to decide this is acceptable?

The second key issue is how we are going to make decisions about where our finite resources (conservators and funds) are best used. To give a health parallel, many medical decisions are made either in triage form (at the site of an accident for instance) or at a funding level on quality of life (e.g. are funds better spent keeping one brain dead person on life support for many years as against being able to treat many people with a curable disease).  As conservators, we also use the triage concept when deciding what to treat with flood or fire damaged objects.  What we are less good at doing is making big decisions about collections – are we better to treat a single object to the nth degree when with the same amount of resources we could stabilise and extend the lives of 100 other objects.

As conservators, our interests and our training both tend to focus us on the detail, rather than on the big picture. I believe that in order to address both of these issues, we conservators are going to need to take a more expansive and contextual viewpoint much more often.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Conservation challenges - 25 years and counting

25 years ago today marks the day that I founded International Conservation Services (ICS).  Well, not quite, in that it was originally called Campbell Conservation before morphing into ICS in 1991.  Back in 1986 a wonderful man called Chick Campbell, who owned and ran the Campbell Group, was prepared to back my hunch that there was an opportunity in the Australian market for a multi-disciplinary conservation company, and the rest, as they say folks, is history.

As I write this, I am in London in the midst of a Council meeting of the International Institute for Conservation, of which I am one of the Vice Presidents.  And it is proving a useful time to reflect both on running a private conservation business over the past 25 years, as well as the challenges of responding to the current key issues in conservation – but more on the latter in a future post.

On the face of it, the journey at ICS has been about how to keep a commercial conservation operation viable.  There have been times when this has been challenging, for all sorts of reasons.  However, one of the enduring challenges has been the conflict between the passion to conserve, and the reality of commercial existence.  Fundamentally, as conservators, we are in this profession to conserve  objects.  And most of us are passionate about that.  Yes, we know that we need to earn a living to survive, but making money doesn’t drive us the way caring for objects does.  The journey at ICS has therefore been about focusing that critical passion we all have for this extraordinarily privileged position we so often find ourselves in, so that our business can at least operate sustainably. 

It has also been about providing an opportunity for more than 100 conservators to develop their skills, ply their profession, and indulge their passion, whilst conserving (we estimate) some 40,000 artworks and objects in that time, thus ensuring their stories can continue to be told to future generations.

What I realise that these 25 years have not been about is a series of ethical dilemmas. The decision not to get involved, for instance, in treating a painting from which a client wanted to remove an unloved sister, or a rare textile which a client wanted to cut up into cushions, has never been hard.  Happily, these have been very rare occurrences. 

Instead, the decisions on how to treat an object have often been technically taxing, but as a result, frequently exhilarating.  I think particularly of Tasmania's Hamilton Inn Sofa, which took us on a fascinating journey to ensure the treatment both respected its history and reflected its uniqueness as a decorative arts object.

So now for the next 25 years, folks! I purposely did not name the company Bickersteth Conservation (not sure that has much of a ring to it anyway!) as I wanted to ensure that what we collectively built could live on past individual careers.  No sign of the passion dulling on my part, but planning for the future will be one of the challenges for the next 25 years.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

QR codes, RFIDs and Goggles

Responding to the challenge of how to impart 'rich media' to visitors is gaining pace. This is all about how we can provide more than just text on a label and perhaps some video on an adjacent screen. I'm doing a quick circuit round the world to check out the latest (amongst other things. such as attending the IIC Council meeting in London).

But first up, as so often is the case in the museum technology world, our own Powerhouse Museum is trail blazing. Their newly opened 'Love Lace' exhibition is using QR codes to provide further information on each of the 120 objects in the show. You need: 1) a smartphone and 2) to download the appropriate app, and then 3) to scan the bar code on each label to access this further information. There is not a lot more information you get, but it is proving the point that this is a valid way to deliver rich media. Check out Seb Chan's blog post to read about the initial take up. And whilst you are at it, do visit the exhibition. It is a stunning collection of objects, the unifying theme being some reference to lace or the patterns thereof. It's even got a big article in the latest edition of the Qantas inflight magazine.

Two other technologies I shall be looking at. The first is the use of NFC (Near Field Communication) functionality on some Nokia phones, which is being used to deliver rich media at the Museum of London. Nokia has funded this rollout at the Museum to help promote NFC, and I shall be most interested to see what take up is like.

The second is the Google Goggles technology that the Getty Museum is using (see my blog post), which utilises visual recognition technology to connect via your smartphone to an array of rich media.

Interesting times and I shall report back shortly.  Got to run - my flight is being called!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, August 12, 2011

Guard those valuable rhino horns

I was alerted to the phenomenal interest in rhino horns at the Bonhams sale of the Owston Collection in Sydney late last year. Two rather ropey looking adult black rhino heads (with particularly unlikely looking glass eyes) which were each estimated to sell for $20-$30,000 both fetched $90,000. Two more were sold by Theodore Bruce Auctioneers only last month in Sydney, estimated respectively at $30-$40,000 and $50-60,000 and realising $90,000 and $130,000. The difference in price apparently reflected the likely weight and density of their horns.

And the reason they fetched so much? No museum future for these stuffed heads unfortunately, but an unceremonious removal of the horn and grinding up into powder to be sold for medicinal purposes in Asian markets, where it apparently can fetch up to $50,000 a kilo.
In a comparatively short time, i.e. the last twelve months, those poor rhino heads in public collections have become a significant target for thieves. This year there has been the theft of the head of a black rhino from the zoological museum in Liège, Belgium in June and another one from the Natural History Museum in Brussels in July. In the UK the Haslemere Museum, lost theirs in May, and only last week thieves broke into the Ipswich Museum in Essex, and took off with Rosie, the stuffed rhino's horn. "They wrenched the horn off Rosie — it probably only took them five minutes to take it and leave. They knew exactly what they wanted, and nothing was else was taken," Max Stocker at Ipswich Council told Reuters.

We don’t of course know how many in private collections have also been stolen

The legislators have moved fast to clamp down on the legal trade. Two years ago the European Commission ruled that rhino horn trophies, previously considered to be part of an endangered species in their raw state, were permissible as works of art. The "worked item" derogation (as it is called in antiques language) stated that an object which includes the "parts and derivatives" of an endangered species is exempt from the normal sales controls if it was acquired prior to June 1947 and has been "significantly altered from its natural raw state for jewellery, adornment, art, utility or musical instrument". Until this year, mounted rhino horns in their natural state were considered to be 'worked' meaning they could be legally traded.

But in a sudden move in February this year, the EC brought in a ban on selling rhino horn trophies with immediate effect. In particular they identified that "a rhino horn mounted on a plaque, shield or other type of base has not been sufficiently altered from its natural state" to qualify under the antiques derogation.

It also advised that "the conditions which require any alteration to have been carried out for "jewellery, adornment, art, utility, or musical instruments" will not have been met where the artistic nature of any such alteration (such as significant carving, engraving, insertion or attachment of artistic or utility objects, etc) is not obvious".

In summary this means that in the EC, including the UK, the sale of mounted, but otherwise unaltered, rhino horn is now illegal where the artistic nature of any alteration is not obvious.

Sadly those living specimens are not immune. In 2007, South Africa lost 13 rhinos to poachers, in 2008 the number rose to 83, and increased again in 2009 to 122. Last year more over 200 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa.
Apart from being generally aware of the new EC legislation and its likely implementation in Australia, the threat to museums of the theft of their rhino horns, heads and worked items is very real, and we should ensure whether in storage or on display they are all properly secured.

And the saddest thing of all? Dr Raj Amin recently advised the Zoological Society of London that tests by Hoffmann-LaRoche researchers had confirmed rhino horn contains no medical properties.

“There is no evidence at all that any constituent of rhino horn has any medical property. Medically, it’s the same as if you were chewing your own nails,” says Dr. Amin.

Monday, August 8, 2011

In praise of Scottish Museums

When the  Burrell collection first opened it created a buzz in the museum world much wider than its native Scotland, which was driven by a number of factors. First of all the building 3 miles from the centre of Glasgow was a stunner, since voted Scotland’s second greatest post war building. Secondly the collection was eclectic, including as it does everything from mediaeval architectural features, arms and armour, Islamic art, to Impressionist paintings and modern sculpture, all put together by one man, Sir Walter Burrell in the late 19th and early 20th century. And thirdly the setting in the historic Pollock Country Park allows for the place to be a destination for family days out.

At the time of opening (1983) it provided a focus on Scottish museums which had hitherto been seen as somewhat parochial.

So when the City of Glasgow reopened their city museum and art gallery in 2006 in the Victorian splendour of Kelvingrove(interestingly voted by locals Glasgow’s favourite building), the museum sector seriously sat up and watched what was happening in Scotland. Kelvingrove has since gone on to win various awards and is currently the most visited museum in the UK outside London. Again like the Burrell it combines a stunning building with eclectic displays housed within. The spitfire fighter plane zooming low over the stuffed elephant in the grand entrance hall says it all.

So it’s great to see excellence being piled onto excellence with the opening of the refurbished  National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh two weeks ago. Once again we see similar ingredients, a magnificent Victorian building displaying a ‘gloriously eclectic archive of objects that Scottish explorers, inventors, soldiers and scientists brought back from their travels’ ( to quote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Travel editor - yes it even got the lead story in the paper’s Travel section last week end). That eclecticism is manifested in a great white shark alongside the world’s oldest surviving colour television and Alexander Fleming’s Nobel Prize medal. And the visitor numbers show what the public makes of it, 6,000 visitors in the first hour, and 22,000 on the first day of reopening and 100,000 in under a week.

You could say the challenge is in keeping those visitors coming back, but certainly Kelvingrove is showing it can. The broader lessons to my mind are that a) never underestimate the power of a great building as part of the visitor attraction to museums, and b) that we have an audience out there that loves eclecticism, the quirkiness of collecting and the stories that such objects can tell.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Changing environmental guidelines for museums

I have been chairing a taskforce for AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) for the last eighteen months on changing guidelines for environmental conditions for museums. We’ve collated a pile of material on what is happening around Australia and in the world in this most interesting space. It is driven by a combination of rising energy costs (as much as 70% of museum expenses post salaries are spent on energy, most of it running climate control systems), reducing budgets and the need to be and to be seen to be environmentally conscious.

The opportunity for using these circumstances to relax the tight parameters that are currently stipulated for the display and storage of museum collections (typically 20 degrees C +/- 10% and 50% RH +/- 10% ) is being welcomed by some conservators and regarded with suspicion by others. The reality is that only a few types of materials really require these tight levels and we have ended up in a position where they are stipulated as a blanket condition for all collections. But as for coming up with new guidelines around potentially more relaxed conditions, in reality we can only move in Australia as fast as the rest of the world. As a net borrower of artworks and objects we must provide exhibition space that accords with international environmental parameters.

So it is very good news to have at last the UK’s latest thinking on these issues just published in the British Standards Institute’s PAS ( Publically Available Specification) 198 – Specification for environmental conditions for cultural collections.

Whilst these new specifications do not lay down the final rules on the new parameters (that will come in the British Standard) what they are saying is:

  • Collecting institutions need to acknowledge that attempts to establish a universal safe zone has resulted in unsafe conditions for atypical collections and unsustainable use of energy
  • The new parameters will not be narrowly prescriptive and will allow an acceptable degree of deterioration/loss
  • They will take into account the use of energy to maintain the collection environment
  • They will require decision making on environmental parameters to consider energy usage data, expected usage of collection items, and include a risk assessment
  • They will include as integral to the package of environmental parameters acceptable levels of light and pollution
We are busy writing the first draft of the AICCM Guidelines right now and hope to have them widely promulgated by the end of the year. We have even submitted them to the MAGNA Sustainability Project Awards at this year’s Museums Australia conference in Perth.

I will keep you posted as to when these are publically available.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Google matters

A quick note on the fast moving world of Google and particularly how it impacts on the museum world.

I blogged on Google Art in March and April - a new initiative that involves providing 'street views' of the contents of 17 of the great art galleries around the world, and high resolution images of selected artworks.

Google Goggles is a visual recognition app that has been around since 2009. It is like the music recognition app Shazam, except it does it visually rather than by audio. It has focused on two areas to date namely architecturally recognisable buildings and wine labels. The former I could understand, but why the latter had taken the fancy of the folks at Google was not entirely clear – apparently there are enough wine connoisseurs out there who want to photograph a wine label and find out whether the bottle is worth $10 or $100.

However, the application of using a visual search engine activated not by putting in key phrases but by taking a picture with your smartphone has been begging to be applied to artworks, and finally Google has announced they have teamed up with the Getty to "Goggles-enable" (don’t you love the phraseology!) their permanent collection. Read all about it in the LA Times.

How it works is that you take a picture of any of the Getty paintings during your visit and instantly access information about the painting. You can also hear commentary from artists, curators and conservators on the works of art themselves.

The Getty has been trialing ways in which they can provide more information to visitors than fits on a wall label for some years. They pioneered the so-called ‘Getty Guides’, a mp3 player format that provided an advance on the audio guide concept by including images, but it was not found to be taken up with much enthusiasm by visitors.

The bigger picture is whether we are moving to a label free world in museums, as MONA in Tasmania is pioneering (see my blog). My view is that we shall never dispense with the label but the opportunities that smartphones in particular are providing for seriously enriching access to information on what is being viewed are only going to multiply.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, June 27, 2011

Connectedness and museums

We are inundated with information on how the digital world is changing our lives on almost a weekly basis, and one of the issues I struggle with is making sense in a practical way of what we hear and read, i.e. what these changes mean in our professional lives working in museums.

So it is good to report on two interesting documents which have appeared in the last week which provide some hard data to help cut through what it all means.

The first is a report from the Pew Foundation of Washington DC. I blogged about their presentation to Museums and the Web in April, and this is a useful update on internet use. What they have found from their most recent survey is that:
  • 79% of US adults now use the internet.
  • 47% of US adults use at least one social networking site (SNS), which is 59% of those who use the internet. This is close to double those using a SNS in 2008.
  • The average age of SNS users is now 38, up from 33 in 2008, with over half SNS users over 35.
  • 92% of SNS users are on Facebook, 29% on MySpace, 18% used LinkedIn and 13% Twitter (up from 8% a year before).
The second report, which ties in well with this has been produced by the Australia Council. Entitled Connecting://arts audiences online it is a most useful survey of how new technology and platforms are making connecting and engaging with the arts quicker, easier and more open. No surprises there, nor the ability of this technology to enrich the experience, but what I was looking for was up take of this technology. For instance Twitter may appear to be prevalent as a SNS but Pew tells us only 13% of SNS users in the US are engaged with it.

So what I usefully learnt about the Australian online scene is as follows:
  • Half arts audiences have an internet engaged phone and this is growing fast
  • 64% of arts attendees aged 55 and over actively use Facebook
  • 90% of arts organisations have a Facebook presence and 69% had made a wall post in the last week
  • Although 25% of arts audiences have used Twitter, half no longer use their account
  • One in three arts attendees are going on line and engaging with others DURING an arts experience
  • 34% shared photos, audio or video after the event
What do I take from all of this?

Social media provides a new way for audiences to express their affinity for the arts. Arts audiences want to engage with the event before, during and after it to extend, relive and remember the event. Such behaviour is spontaneous amongst younger audiences but needs prompting amongst older audiences.

Museum web sites need to easily link to social media, both to provide a functional means to reach their social media presence, but more importantly to respond to a comment often made during this survey that simply seeing key social media brand logos on an organisation’s web site immediately gives it street cred.

I am doing lots of work with apps and visit tracking at present through our technology company Smarttrack RFID (see the latest announcement), and in my view we are already beyond just producing apps that provide a guide to the exhibit or museum.

Apps now need to allow users to share the experience and interact with the exhibit. This is a world where we need to encourage SNS use big time, as it has the potential to draw a demographic into the museum which is currently not well represented. Whilst I hesitate to draw parallels with the new SNS view on classical concerts (listeners being allowed to photo and tweet during performances), the upside for engagement with artworks, objects and exhibits is enormous and so exciting.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, June 20, 2011

The free entry debate

I had dinner last week with senior staff from the Natural History Museum in London, here in Australia for the opening of the new Scott exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Do make time to visit it if you are in Sydney until October or catch it after that in London at NMH or mid next year in Christchurch at the Canterbury Museum. And spare a thought for our colleagues at the latter museum, who had just finished getting straight after the February 22nd earthquake when another one struck last week and took them almost literally back to square one again.
But coming back to NMH, they have a nice problem of over crowding. At weekends and on public holidays they can have as many as 22,000 visitors a day and that is significantly compromising the quality of the visit. Overall numbers grew by 10% last year taking them over the 3 million visitors a year mark , and fourth in the UK museum popularity stakes behind the British Museum, Tate Modern and the National Gallery. So their focus is now on how to fill the Museum on quieter days and also ensure the quality of the visit is maintained. Bear in mind that all National museums in the UK are still free entry, despite political murmurings of doing away with this.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, achieving growth in visitor numbers is taxing senior museum executives, with numbers either plateauing or sliding at most major museums. One significant difference is that they are almost without exception ticketed entry institutions. The Met may still be the third most visited museum on the planet (after the Louvre (8.5m) and the BM (5.8m) at 5.2 m visitors per annum), but they have decided they need to raise the entrance fee on July 1st from $20 to $25.

That is causing some interesting debate as reported in the NY Times last week. Perhaps the most interesting are: a) whether public museums have a moral obligation like libraries to be free, i.e. should the public have to pay to see what belongs to them and b) how should an entrance fee compare in value to say a cinema ticket or a meal.

No one has a definitive answer to these issues, but there is little doubt that the acres of treasures at the Met remain good value for hours of edutainment even at $25. The bigger consideration is whether the rise is going to discourage lower income visitors, and indeed whether the price hike is in fact a way of limiting over crowding. The Met says very much not and points out quite validly that the entry fee is only recommended, and voluntary. Either way it is going to be interesting to watch their visitor numbers.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sydney Ice Bear in perspective

It has been a phenomenal week, with the Sydney Ice Bear’s impact being much greater than we ever thought possible.

To recap, we craned it into position at 2.30am last Friday morning:

Started carving at 7.30am:

And completed carving at 12.30pm that day:

Each night it has been complemented by the Vivid Festival’s illumination of Customs House, seen well on this 360 degree image of the ice bear in the middle of the Customs House forecourt.

Then on Sunday as the ice bear started melting we had a public rally at which Katie Noonan performed:

Followed by an ice carving masterclass on Monday:

The story has gone round the world from the Times of India to Xinhua Newsagency - see the clip here.

I am still trying to digest how we have achieved so much media and public attention, but it appears to be a mix of the incredibly power of this art installation and the skill of the media and marketing company Momentum2.

Catch it if you can before it leaves Customs House on Saturday.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Sydney Ice Bear is arriving tomorrow

The Sydney Ice Bear is finally about to happen tomorrow, Friday June 3rd! I first came across this wonderful project in late 2009 when my sculptor friend Mark Coreth was developing it for the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December of that year. It ended up being the centrepiece of the WWF exhibit there and seemed to be the back drop to almost every news story from the Summit. Thence to Trafalgar Square in London, and Toronto, Montréal and Manchester.

Mark’s concept, drawn from watching polar bears in the wild in Canada, was to create an ice sculpture that people could touch, thus allowing them to metaphorically touch the Arctic, feel the problem of climate change, and be inspired to become part of the solution. So tomorrow a block of ice, weighing 9 tonnes and containing frozen in it the bronze skeleton of a polar bear, will be placed in Customs House Square in Sydney. From 7am Mark and his team will carve it into the shape of a polar bear, which will take about 4 hours.

With the inconclusive result of Copenhagen, the heart went out of the climate change debate, and getting funding for such a project proved nigh impossible in Australia. So it’s been fantastic to have found the wholehearted support of Rob Purves and the Purves Environmental Fund to make this happen. Rob has been tireless in his efforts to promote this project, working with Momentum2 to raise funds off the back of it for WWF- Australia, 1millionwomen and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. It’s a complete eye opener how this world of not-for profit fund raising around environmental issues works, I can tell you!

Tomorrow I’ll post some pictures of the bear arriving and being carved.

But for today check out this promo the National Geographic have done for us, and if you are in Sydney do come on down to see the Sydney Ice Bear at Customs House.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, May 19, 2011

That pesky issue of deaccessioning

I see I have not mentioned the word deaccessioning in this blog for at least 18 months, but the issues that I wrote about then just keep on coming up.

The latest salvo comes from students of the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library upset by Senior Librarian John Shipp’s plan to deaccession 500,000 books and periodicals

John is a thoroughly decent man who does not deserve the vitriol being thrown at him, but that is what the process of deaccessioning seems to generate whenever it is mentioned.

The reality behind this situation is spelt out in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on May 14th 2011, where a former staffer at the Library writes that “This is a decision that has been avoided by librarians at the University of Sydney for the past 40 years. Libraries cannot be allowed to grow indefinitely”. The writer then cites how a previous librarian accepted all the discards from American libraries in a large shipment that is still cluttering up the stacks.

Meanwhile in the UK as reported in the latest Museums Journal, Nick Merriman (see previous blogs for his interest in this area) continues to champion the deaccessioning of collections for financial purposes in certain circumstances: “The Museums Association continues to believe that ethically sound, financially motivated disposal has a role to play in the development of collections”.

What the words ‘ethically sound’ refers to is the MA’s Code of Ethics which states that disposal for financial gain is unethical where an artwork or item is part of the collecting area of the collecting institution. Thus for instance Bolton Council has withdrawn a painting it was due to deaccession and auction by a local artist, Alfred Heaton Cooper, because it did not fall outside their stated core collecting areas, despite the fact it did not depict Bolton.

The core issue here is that deaccessioning is and must remain a part of good collecting policy. The temptation to sell valuable items to keep the show on the road in times of financial stringency is strong, but that is clearly bad policy. Where however items are clearly beyond the collecting areas of the institution and are most unlikely to be publicly displayed, and where the funds that they might realise can help other parts of the organisation, e.g. with a new storage facility, then it makes good sense.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Antarctic conservation matters

The heritage of Antarctic exploration is one of my passions. At ICS we have been deeply involved in the Antarctic Heritage Trust of New Zealand’s program conserving the some 15,000 artefacts that still remain in the four historic huts and various other structures in the NZ Antarctic Territory that survive from the Heroic Era of Exploration (1899 to 1916).

The project has had so many different facets from the process of writing conservation and implementation plans, to resolving logistics and finding conservators who are willing to spend six months in an Antarctic winter, most of it in 24 hour darkness. We are now into our sixth winter of conservators working at Scott Base conserving artefacts in the purpose built lab, and alongside that six summer seasons of conservators working out in the field at the historic huts.

The exposure that this conservation work has had has been fantastic for the profession – it has been referred to as ‘the most exciting conservation project in the world’. And that has been helped by some good publicity.

Primarily this has been through what must be one of the conservation profession’s longest running blogs hosted by the Natural History Museum in London. It is well worth trawling back through the last six years to see some real gems of postings.

More recently, last summer season Ben Fogle and a team from the BBC spent two weeks at Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans filming conservators in action, the resulting documentary being screened on prime time UK tv a couple of weeks ago. Again it is great to see conservators as the focus of the story. You can watch it here

2012 is shaping up to be a big year for Antarctic exploration aficionados. It is after all the year that Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition landed in Commonwealth Bay (January 7th), Amundsen (having reached the South Pole in December 1911) announced his success from the steps of Hobart Post Office on March 9th, and Scott, having also reached the Pole, died on the return trip about March 28th 1912. I am busily organizing a meeting of the ICOMOS International Polar Heritage Committee for March next year in Hobart, during which we intend to re-enact Amundsen’s announcement.

And finally to commemorate the centenary of Scott’s expedition the Natural History Museum, London, the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch and the Antarctic Heritage Trust have collaborated to create an international travelling exhibition that will open at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney in mid June 2011. It will include a stylised representation of Scott's expedition hut at Cape Evans as per below. Check it out here.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, May 2, 2011

Museums, mobiles and apps

I often find that the full impact of a conference, especially one so immersive as Museums and the Web 2011 , only really hits home a week or two after the event is over. So, in promising not to mention the conference again, here are my considered thoughts on where the world is in this corner of the museum sector.
  1. The museum in a mobile world was the primary focus of the conference, by which I mean that although tons of other issues were discussed, it is the potential for how mobile technology can significantly change the museum visit, whether through content delivery, visitor interaction or way finding that kept appearing as the most exciting current opportunity. And what became clear is that, just as there is no one single mobile platform (e.g. Android, iOS ( iPhone operating system) etc, there is no uniform way of using mobiles in museums. Indeed as David Bearman, the conference convenor, said the landscape reminds him of the late 1990s when museums were debating whether or not they should have a web site. Now they are debating whether or not they should have an app, and what it should look like. It is going to take some time until an element of uniformity arrives with a ‘standard’ app platform.
  2. Apps are not going to be the latest iteration of audio guides. Not only is the business model going to be different, with museums choosing to do part of the app development in-house, depending on internal capacity and strengths (typically audio guides have been put together by external companies (e.g. Acoustiguide or Antenna) who have then leased the equipment to the museum), but the use to which they will be put is quite different. Using audio guides is essentially a passive activity. Apps are active encouraging interaction both with other users, but also the museum and in some cases the exhibit itself.
  3. This new world of mobiles is going to need some significant organisational change within the museum profession. Mobile use is about a collaborative rather than authoritative approach to learning from exhibits. This is a challenge to the traditional view for museum staff. Social media programs are currently being run by the marketing/PR part of the museums, but it must draw in staff working in cross disciplinary groups from across the whole museum, with more face to face conversations for its opportunities to be maximised.
For a great example of what the world of the app in museums looks like, from internal cross disciplinary involvement to external marketing go no further than the Explorer system at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, April 15, 2011

Museums and the Web 2011 – the web site picture

One of the highlights of the annual Museums and the Web conference is the Best of the Web awards. Museum web sites are submitted from all over the world and vetted by a panel of web developers, museum professionals and general tech heads. It is peers critically judging the work of their peers, and the awards are highly valued within the museum community.

So it was great to see Australia doing well with Museum Victoria taking out the award in the Audio Visual/ podcast category, and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) getting not only the award in the education category but also the best web site overall – quite an accolade.

More broadly what I came away with from the papers I heard on web site issues is the depth of thinking now going on in the museum world about how web sites are used and the opportunities they provide for creating a quite different experience from the museum visit. I would particularly highlight:
  1. The work of the National Museum of Denmark in bringing art stories alive (including an innovative and embedded use of what conservators do and what they can contribute to art stories). Read the paper here.
  2. What the Tate are up to in rethinking their web site as a result of a massive four year rebuild. The Tate has always been at the forefront of web site development being one of the first major art museums to place their entire collection of 60,000 artworks on line. They realised that the budgetary and cultural restrictions imposed on museum websites was holding them back from competing in terms of leveraging the power of relational databases in a way their commercial rivals do, and that their website displays artworks on line in the same paradigm as print publishing – namely as reproductions. No real surprises there but the conclusions they come to are worth reading.
  3. And finally the Smithsonian. They are engaged on a collaborative project across the whole Institution to review their web strategy, which involves a series of staff workshops open to all staff . Each of the workshops includes a real-time transcription of the proceedings posted to a wiki, where it can be openly evaluated, sifted, weighed, and considered by all. The project has very clear goals namely to define the optimum role for the Smithsonian in the next 100 years by:
    • Embracing new models of knowledge creation and dissemination
    • Providing better access to knowledge for geographically and demographically diverse audiences
    • Providing richer, more engaging means (storytelling) for different types of audiences to engage with our knowledge assets
    • Creating opportunities for inter-disciplinary collaboration and learning
    • Identifying new revenue sources to support the ever-growing programs
It is a great model for where the museum web site is going. Check it out here.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Museums and the Web – in praise of Google Art

I was rather dismissive of Google Art when I blogged about it a few weeks ago, principally due to the fact that I could not see what it was offering beyond promotion of Google that what was not already available on line.

Our final session at Museums and the Web 2011 involved a Q&A session with representatives of institutions who are part of it plus a member of the Google Art team. And I must say that their comments, along with a further play I have had with the web site, has turned me into a bit of a fan.

First up, a bit of background. Google Art is a project developed in house by Google staff in their 20% time (the day a week all Google staff are given to pursue their own ideas). It involved 17 art museums in Europe and the USA allowing Google’s ‘street-view’ technology to document their principal galleries along with each museum providing Google with 35 high res images of key artworks. In addition each museum had to choose one artwork for Google to photograph at super high res (gigabyte level). The project cost the museums nothing beyond their own staff time.

In good Google fashion each museum was locked into a very tight non-disclosure agreement so that for the two years the project took to develop, each one had no idea which other museums were involved. It’s clear that some museums had reservations about this and pulled out and are now regretting doing so.
And the reaction now that it is up? High praise from the museums that were represented on the panel, complementing Google on how good they were to work with, pleased with the results, and all of them citing massive increase in web activity on each of their sites, and significantly increased visitor numbers (which is why they did it in the first place). Concerns over copyright were allayed by artworks being blurred out in gallery views (particularly noticeable in the National Gallery, London’s site), and the potential loss in revenue by giving away high res images, which they normally sell, compensated by the higher visitor numbers. The representative from the Tate made the interesting observation that many of their curators who have tended to dismiss the internet were now excited about it and finally understanding its power in their sphere.

And the downside? I had sensed during the conference that amongst the museum web site fraternity there was some unhappiness. This manifested itself during the Q&A session in questions about Google’s lack of openness. Why could not the statistics on Google Art visitors be made public, why could not the ‘street-view’ sequences and technology be made available for the museums to use as tours themselves or for recording temporary exhibitions, and why did they not undertake the whole exercise as an open collaborative exercise with the museum sector?

The Google Art rep’s answer to each was politely circumscribed but was clearly that this is ultimately about driving traffic to the Google site as cost effectively as possible.

For my money, the end justifies the means. The project has created a significant new asset for the museum sector.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director