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.