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.