Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Curators, curation and opinions

I have been intrigued this week by an article entitled ‘Why curation is important to the Future of Journalism”. Check it out here. It refers to the rise of a new role: the journalistic curator.

For us museum bods, a curator refers to the person holding that critical position of looking after a collection. Indeed the word is derived from the Latin ‘cura’ meaning ‘care’. In Australia it is also used for one who cares for a sports ground, e.g. the curator of the Sydney Cricket Ground. And just to confuse us all, the French term for curator is conservator, e.g. conservateurs du patrimoine or heritage curators.

I have blogged before about the increasingly marginalised role that curators have in museums, and it occurred to me that this article might provide some guidance on what the future for museum curators might look like. I quote:
  • “Curation (not a term we often use) gathers … fragmented pieces of information to one location, allowing people to get access to more specialized content”.
  • "Good curators know where to find interesting things, because they know the paths and can provide a knowledgeable voice to make things a little easier to parse”
  • “Curators help navigate readers through the vast ocean of content, and while doing so create a following based on several factors; trust, taste and tools”.
  • “Part of the appeal of good curation is that it carries the person’s footprint. Opinion isn’t really a bad thing, and in fact gives the content shape in this context.
It was the last point that particularly caught my attention. I recently enjoyed the excellent Annie Leibovitz exhibition at the MCA in Sydney. I had only thought of Leibovitz as a portrait and landscape photographer, so I was particularly interested in her work in Sarajevo during the Balkan war. As she said she went there as a journalist, but became frustrated by having to be impartial, and chose to take sides as a photographer (i.e. have an opinion) and document Serbian atrocities.
Should museum curators have opinions? Should their curation reflect a particular viewpoint or expect to provide a balanced and impartial view? I am reminded of the National Museum of Australia controversy over their Australia post-1788 exhibition, which espoused the so-called black armband view, that eventually resulted in the non-renewal of the director’s contract. The NMA clearly had an opinion but was it necessarily a bad thing? John Howard’s advisers thought so.

I turned to the latest edition of the UK Museums Journal to check out their exhibition reviews section. In the first review (“Extraordinary Heroes” at the Imperial War Museum, London) the curator does not even rate a mention (and this at a major national museum), the exhibition designer holding pride of place. However both the next two exhibition reviews list the curator above the exhibition designer, the latter being an exhibition on the Chartism movement at the Newport Museum. It praises the exhibition as ‘treading delicately, balancing the exposition of an important piece of social history…succeeding in producing a display that is both respectful and thoughtful in equal measure”.

So it seems that the mark of a good curator in the modern museum exhibition is a) either to be so impartial as to disappear from the name board, or b) to provide a balanced view. It sounds as though the journalistic curator is a different breed. A pity in my view, and perhaps indicative of why the museum curator is a dying breed.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Google Art and the power of the real thing

I have been playing with Google Art on and off since it was released a month or so ago, trying to get excited about it. Certainly the technology is amazing and the ability to walk round 385 galleries in 17 world museums and zoom in on the paintings within them impressive. But it comes down the same thing I have commented on before namely, the technology taking over from the art appreciation itself. Check out a similar view in the Boston Globe by art critic Sebastian Smee.

But as Smee points out the reason the 17 museums have allowed Google into their hallowed halls is to encourage more visitors to come and see the real thing. Does one naturally follow the other, i.e. does investing in your on-line presence as a museum pay dividends in increasing your visitor numbers? I used to cite ‘French research’ as proving that it did, which was sloppy as I could never actually source that research.

However I have recently come across a study undertaken by IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) in 2008 on precisely this issue. Interviewing over a thousand people on the statement: “The Internet does not kill libraries and museums”, they came to the conclusion “Internet use is positively related to in-person visits to museums and libraries”- I never realized that my museum visiting was actually an ‘in-person visit’, but now I know!

What they really mean is that adults who use the internet are more likely to visit libraries and museums. Indeed they manage to put a figure on it, namely that in 2006 internet access increased adult visits to museums in the US by 75%. They go further by coming to the conclusion that in-person and on-line visits to museums serve important and complimentary roles in supporting a wide variety of information needs. By looking at information needs addressed by the two types of visits (in-person as distinct from on-line) , the study identified that 94% of the in-person visits are about informal learning and recreation (as against formal education or work-related issues) whereas this drops to 83% when on-line. Another interesting fact that came out of the IMLS study is that the more on-line visits that are made, the more that person is likely to visit a museum.

So now I feel better about Google Art! And to add to that, as a conservator, there is no doubt that its ability to provide such detailed analysis of the paint surface is a useful addition to the conservator’s tool kit, when seeking to understand comparable painting composition and potential deterioration.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Remedial vs preventive conservation

One of the hats I wear is co-editor of the AICCM ( the professional body for Australian conservators) Newsletter. In the latest edition we sought responses from a number of senior Australian conservators on where they stood on the remedial versus preventive conservation debate. This was prompted by an interview in a recent edition of the Getty Conservation Institute’s own newsletter Conservation Perspectives in which my friend Stephen Rickerby of the Courtauld Institute in London was frank about where he stood on the issue:

I had greater faith in remedial intervention. That faith has been lost—for me and, I suspect, for many others in the conservation profession. There’s a global trend toward preventive conservation and site management and away from remedial intervention. While we all still practice remedial intervention, we now have doubts about its efficacy, and we place it in a context of wider conservation measures. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we believe those other measures are going to save paintings. I think there is a more realistic view of what we can and cannot do. The best we can do is to slow deterioration. We’ve hopefully lost a lot of our hubris in terms of what we think we can achieve.

The reality is of course that it is artificial to see the issue as remedial vs preventive, as each serves a different purpose. Remedial conservation is generally about active intervention - ‘doing’ if you like - whereas preventive conservation is about context - ensuring the conditions are appropriate for extending the life of the object as far as possible.

But in asking the question of others it has prompted me to question where I stand. Working in private conservation for most of my life has meant that there has been a lot more doing than preventive work – we get asked to ’fix’ things much more than to consult on their environment. And that is undoubtedly one of the attractions of private conservation. Too many of my public sector colleagues seem disillusioned with the profession, saying they spend much of their time in meetings or on condition reporting rather than working on things.

But as I get older, do I have less faith in our ability to intervene successfully? No, I believe that our interventions continue to be justified, the difference being that the experience of years mean I know more about the likely outcomes. What I can see is that I have less faith in modern materials, or to put it another way, err towards using traditional materials wherever possible as we can predict so much better how they are going to perform.

So what did other senior conservators have to say on the issue? Opinions varied ranging from David Hallam at the National Museum’s forthright comment that “Preventive conservation is a great ‘cop out’ for those who do not have the science basis or practical skill to carry out successful treatment” to Sarah Clayton at the Australian War Memorial questioning the success of some remedial conservation “Over the last 20 years I have seen too many interventive treatments that have not lasted the distance”, whilst David Thurrowgood at the National Gallery of Victoria stated that remedial skills are at the core of the conservator’s work “The skill of remedial intervention, the ability to sensitively and intelligently intervene in the care of an object, is central to what many conservators need to be able to undertake with confidence”.

In all we solicited almost a dozen responses from senior conservators. It confirmed that one size does not fit all, and that different approaches for different objects is vital. It highlighted to me that, like so much in life, experience and perspective counts for a great deal.

In conservation it gives us the confidence to do little or nothing where that really does appear to be the most effective option for long term preservation of an artwork or object. Barbara Applebaum’s seminal book on this issue ‘Conservation Treatment Methodology’ Elsevier 2007 is a must-read if you want to learn more.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Understanding our visitors - the loyalty program concept

I hope I am consistent in pushing the line that I am interested in technology for what it can do to improve the museum visitor ‘offering’ (to use a good IT word), rather than getting too engrossed in the technology itself. That’s where my interest lies, which is not to down play those who are more focused on the technology, as we need them exploring what can be done with new technologies. This year’s Museums and the Web conference in Philadelphia, judging by the last one I attended in 2009, will be dominated by the latter group, with the value to me being the insights that can be drawn by such people as Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum who is tasked by the Museum to ensure it is at the cutting edge of technological implementation.

And one of my particular interests is seeing how technology developed in larger sectors, e.g. visitor counting and visitor tracking in the retail sector, can be applied to the museum sector. Zoos and aquariums sit in a sector of their own (as do Botanic Gardens), personnel from which we rarely meet at conferences. But not only do they share many common issues, they also draw generally larger numbers than museums – in other words their ’offering’ is more attractive than the museum one.

So I read with interest on how the Cincinnati Zoo has been tapping analytics to improve attendance, as this is an area where museums are not strong, as I have blogged previously. We tend to know a great deal about our web site visitors, through such tools as Google Analytics, but very little about the patterns of physical visitor behaviour. The Cincinnati Zoo happens also to include a Botanical Garden, and is the number one attraction in the city with 1.1 million visitors per year.

Concern about operational efficiencies prompted a review, with a couple of interesting outcomes:

1) Centralisation of revenue operations: Membership, ticketing , food service and merchandise were all operating as stand alone entities, with 16 food service locations and 51 point-of-sale (POS) locations on the site. By consolidating all services using POS software, all revenue generating transactions can be tracked through one point. The result – reduced operational expense and increased revenue by, for example, ensuring staff levels are in tune with actual needs.

2) Understanding member behaviour better: Members are asked to share essential information upon joining the zoo membership program, and then as they visit the zoo they leave a trail of behavioural information by using their bar coded members cards to take advantage of member discounts and special offers. This is analysed to understand attendance and purchasing patterns, and this in turn drives email campaigns based on visit frequency and spending patterns.

Museums obviously have far less of a focus on revenue generation, but retail and catering are an increasingly important part of their operations and their potential for helping the bottom line needs to be maximised.

But it was another feature of Cincinnati Zoo’s focus on a different type of visitor that struck me as having particular application to museums. The Zoo has identified that there are a proportion of visitors who come more than once but are not frequent enough or are averse to becoming members. For these they have instituted a loyalty program, a first, they believe, amongst zoos or museums. By asking for an email address and a post code, they have found a way of getting to know a broader group of visitors and reward good visitors (by discounts and early notification of events) without the upfront cost of membership. The Zoo’s modelling suggests they could gain an extra 50,000 visitors per year this way.

Given that museums typically struggle to build large membership bases, this could be an interesting initiative to watch.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director