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