Monday, December 21, 2009

Visitor trends that disagree

I have blogged before about the lipstick phenomena and its impact on museums, and also the effect that the GFC and the resulting increase in domestic holidays have had on visitors. Now comes conflicting information from a number of sources on the issue.

AFP reports on 15th December 09 that Madrid’s Prado Museum reported near record numbers for 2009, and the Art Newspaper on 9th December 2009 also reports in its annual survey of major collecting institutions from around the world that two thirds saw an increase in visitors.

However The US Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a downturn in visitor numbers (11th December 09) based on a recent National Endowment for the Arts survey on American art habits. The survey reveals that more and more Americans have stopped going to museums, though before we slit our wrists, let it be clear that we are in the same company as music concerts, opera, ballet and even movies.

To be fair the information is not in conflict. We know there is a short term rise in museum going, but the overall trend is unfortunately negative. And why? The article is well worth reading not just for itself, but also for the ensuing blog commentary. In summary the reasons given are:
· The economy
· Lack of relevant teaching and arts education at primary and secondary level
· Losing our sense of the public sphere – we would rather look at things in the privacy of our own home
· ‘Disneyfication’ of museums (this was in a blog comment) , i.e. too many bells and whistles and not enough real things
· Disallowance of photography in museums (also in a blog comment) thus stopping any ‘fun’. Interestingly the blogger gets the need to limit photography for conservation reasons, but believes ( probably with some justification) that the ban is more about a matter of control over images for reproduction purposes
· And finally Adoration of the internet , i.e. we can get it all on-line, including close ups of all those great paintings – “Who needs to go to the Frick to see Rembrandt’s self portrait when the picture can be had for two easy clicks on the keyboard?”

The last point is interesting. We have consistently said , based on evidence out of French research (though I could not put my hands on it) that the more people look at art museum images on the net the more they want to see the real, but this is now suggesting that is not the case.

Sobering stuff, but at least we now have the ‘metrics’ identifying the problem, so we can plan what to do about it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tracking visitor numbers – metrics rule

‘Metrics’ seems to be the new buzz word around town. Metrics are everywhere. It is increasingly with them that we decide what to read, what stocks to buy, which poor people to feed, which athletes to recruit, which films and restaurants to try. The once-mysterious formation of tastes is becoming a quantitative science. Check out a rather cynical article about their pervasiveness in the New York Times November 20th 2009 edition.

Like almost everything, such matters seep through eventually to the museum and galleries sector. By the way, I used to refer to this as the ALM sector - for Libraries, Archives and Museums with museums of course covering art museums otherwise known as galleries. But the acronym increasingly in vogue seems to be GLAM - for Galleries, Museums, Archives and Museums. I like it and will run with that form from now on.

So where is the GLAM sector on metrics? The answer is two part, as the level of metrics varies enormously between the real and the virtual. Let me tackle each in turn.

On the real, namely how many visitors come through the physical doors, where they go and what they do once inside the institution, there is an embarrassing lack of knowledge. Almost all museums have some form of counting system, either through ticketing, or in the case of free entry museums, through counting systems. However even these are invariably inaccurate. There are many stories of attendants with hand clickers clicking away at random to ensure the visitor quota is achieved. Automatic counting systems give better accuracy, but still have difficulty distinguishing between visitors and staff ( and indeed inanimate objects like strollers or boxes). And once inside the institution there is no tracking of visitor paths, establishment of time spent within the institution or dwell times in front of exhibits quantified. One friend of mine admits that the closest he gets to this is sending staff out with a felt pen and a floor lay-out of the galleries, and tracking the route visitors take by hand. When they dwell in front of a particular exhibit, the felt pen is left on the paper in that spot, leading to a bigger splodge of ink. See my blog from June 2009 on the issue.

On the virtual, things are a little more advanced. We all know the power of Google Analytics, which is giving considerable granularity to web site metrics. But the Powerhouse Museum is now doing great work and mining more deeply into what their visitors do on the Museum’s web site. Read Seb Chan’s most interesting latest thoughts on the matter. Seb reports particularly on the issue of repeat visitations to web sites and understanding who is coming back, how often and why.

All is not lost on the real side of things however. We are looking at a mobile phone technology which allows tracking of visitors (all within privacy requirements) , with the added benefit it can reveal how long each visitor stays in the museum, where they dwell, whether they have been before, and, in the case of international visitors, which country they come from. We need to catch up fast to the same level of understanding that Google Analytics can provide for those web site visitors, and in due course work out the crossover.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Conservation of contemporary art – any clues?

Nothing to my mind as a conservator seems more problematic at present than the conservation of contemporary materials. I think of deteriorating David Hockney paintings covered in yellowing news print or desiccated rubber elements on artifacts, slowly shrivelling up and becoming embrittled. I was at the Australian National Maritime Museum a month ago, and they told me that their entire collection of rubberized bathing caps are melting before their eyes. Despite their being stored in optimum conditions, they are in significantly worse condition than they were 5 years ago to the extent that they will shortly be undisplayable.

The conservation profession has gamefully tried to tackle these issues, with research reported through a number of conferences and publications, particularly over the last ten years. Whilst these have tended to concentrate on the high value area of contemporary art (because this is where the potential diminution in value is greatest), there has also been extensive work undertaken in modern materials ranging from the many types of plastics to soap and chocolates. For a quick resume of what is currently going on, there are a couple of good sites to look at, namely the ICOM-CC Modern Materials and Contemporary Art Working Group and INCCA, the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art.

So I turned to the latest edition (Fall 2009) of the attractively revamped Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter entitled Conservation Perspectives – Modern and Contemporary Art with heightened anticipation that there might actually be some treatment solutions being discussed. Well there is lots of interesting chat of high calibre as one expects from the GCI, and some useful hints on cleaning acrylic paintings from Australian trained conservators Alan Phenix and Bronwyn Ormsby now respectively at GCI and the Tate. But the material problems remain with, by way of example, some horrendous photos of a 1926 artwork made of cellulose nitrate on copper with iron demonstrating extreme warping, cracking, discolouration and corrosion (who in their right mind chooses such combinations of materials anyway??!).

Tom Learner’s lead article does however contain some interesting food for thought, which I paraphrase:
· Today’s society requires us to deny any signs of ageing, putting considerable pressure on conservators to consider intervention in outwardly pristine contemporary works earlier than would traditionally happen.
· Perhaps contemporary art loses so much relevance within ten years of creation that it should be actively displayed and experienced, and allowed to deteriorate with a detailed record of its existence of its early life kept.
· Conservators are often required to carry out treatment on contemporary artworks without the desired level of understanding of the materials or knowledge of the long term consequences of the treatment. In such cases conservators are increasingly reluctant to execute treatments leading in turn to fewer case studies and less knowledge.
· The role of living artists in dictating conservation treatments is fraught with issues: their views need to be taken into account but we need to recognize that artist’s attitudes change throughout their lifetime, and materials available to them also change.

So I am not sure I am much further on, beyond being slightly better informed about the issues.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Anish Kapoor

I have been (sort of) aware of the work of the UK sculptor Anish Kapoor through the copper coloured polished curved mirror in the Art Gallery of NSW permanent collection, but his work was highlighted to me by a paper given at the Sculpture by the Sea symposium held at the Art Gallery on 2nd November. At it Noel Lane talked about the extraordinary Gibbs Farm Sculpture Park in Kaipara Harbour, New Zealand of which he is the director. It’s difficult to explain the sculpture park and it has no website so you need to google Gibbs Farm Sculpture Park to get a feel for it. But it is the brainchild of one of New Zealand’s wealthiest men and long time patron of the arts, Alan Gibbs.

I met Alan in unusual circumstances when he visited Shackleton’s Hut in Antarctica in 2004, where I was undertaking a conservation survey of the artefacts. Alan distinguished himself by finding and then eating a small piece of dried parsnip that had fallen out of a corroded food can and blown across the site to the edge of a melt pool and become rehydrated. The parsnip was a revolting grey colour and had, if I remember rightly, a small piece of penguin guano that needed removal before Alan gave it the taste test. I was convinced he was going to die on the spot, but he lived to tell the tale.

Anyway back to his Farm, and on it he has commissioned Anish Kapoor to design a quite amazing, 84m-long, twisted, red cone. It cuts through a ridge like some celestial megaphone, its sheer size being just astounding. Fabricated from wires and red fabric it sways in the wind. Since then, being now somewhat fascinated by Kapoor’s work I have realised that the enormous stainless steel form outside the Chicago Art Institute is also by him.

So being in London last week, I was delighted to find a temporary exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy (and incidentally everyone talking about it and him). It certainly is quite an exhibition. Apart from more mirrored stainless steel forms and some new experiments in piles of concrete excreted from a computer- controlled three dimensional printer, the shows stars are both made from red pigmented wax. The first involves a cannon which fires 20 pound blocks of wax into a wall in an adjoining room every 20 minutes, which will result by the end of the exhibition in over 30 tonnes of wax accumulating and progressively melting out through the doorway. The second is even more extraordinary taking over 5 whole galleries. It involves a vast chunk of wax weighing over 30 tonnes and measuring 8 metres long moving very slowly along a track and being forced to squeeze through four adjoining doorways between the galleries, being sculpted by the doorways as it does so.

If you are in London before Christmas do make the time to see the exhibition.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The efficiency dividend – or not

Working as we do in the private sector, there are various public sector anomalies that we just don’t get. One of these is the so called ‘Efficiency dividend’ that year in year out federal collecting institutions, e.g. the National Gallery, the Australian War Memorial, the National Library etc, seemed to get pinged with. Certainly from our perspective we can’t see any more efficiencies, and all that it appears to achieve is a reduction in staff and services.

Well, now this has been confirmed as told in a fascinating article published in Public Space; The Journal of Law and Social Justice (2009) Vol 3, and available on line.

The article details that the efficiency dividend was implemented by the Hawke labour government in 1986, as a short term budget cut designed to require agencies to look for efficiencies in their operations. But here we are in 2009 with the ‘dividend’ still being ‘paid’ to the government at an average of a budget cut of 1.25% per annum.

And of course as the efficiencies have long since been achieved, what it really means is a budget cut year in year out. The result is what we have been seeing, namely a diminution in staff and services, and this article spells out in graphic detail what these are. The information in it is drawn from a Parliamentary inquiry into the ongoing effects of the ongoing dividend.

Its’ effect crosses many parts of the institutions operations, from reducing and delaying digitisation work, cutting staff (to a level where the National Library states that in 3 years time the effect of the dividend will mean through resulting staff cuts ‘it will not be a viable institution’) , limiting pay increases and thus losing skilled staff, and curtailing touring exhibitions (the National Gallery has reduced theirs from 14 to 9 over the last few years).

It’s a depressing article, the one hope being that the Parliamentarians that heard the evidence at their inquiry are finally going to remove the dividend. Given that Rudd promised as part of his election platform that if elected he would cut an additional 2% from agency budgets to ensure efficiencies, I fear the future for collecting institutions is looking pretty bleak.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Salzburg Declaration on Conservation

There has been a meeting of the great and good in the world of conservation in Salzburg over last week end. This has been a one off forum sponsored by the US based IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) and it has included in its 60 participants from 37 countries three Australian conservators, Vinod Daniel, from the Australian Museum, who was a co-chair, Ian Cook, former director of Artlab Australia in Adelaide and Marcelle Scott from Melbourne University. I ought to state up front that I tried to get an invite myself, but was told that they wanted more people from developing nations and not particularly anyone from the world of private conservation. Fair call, I suppose, when the big conservation challenges are less and less in the developed world!

They met in the stunning setting of Schloss Leopoldskron, better known as a backdrop to memorable scenes in the Sound of Music, which is the home of the Salzburg Global Forum. Check out the programs this place is running. It appears to have been a great success, resulting in the ‘Salzburg Declaration on the Conservation and Preservation of Cultural Heritage’. Whilst this on first reading appears to be full of worthy generalisations about working together to save the world’s cultural heritage, it does on closer inspection reveal some genuinely new thinking on how to achieve a global approach to conservation.

And it has got me thinking that we do need to see cultural heritage as a universal asset and to approach its conservation with universal cooperation. I am reminded of the 18th century concept of wealthy Englishmen undertaking the grand tour and returning with trunks full of 'universal heritage' with which they then proceeded to create cabinets of curiosities, with no delineation between type (e.g. paintings or stuffed animals) or origin (Iceland or Africa).

The International Institute for Conservation has been running a blog throughout the weekend written by Richard McCoy from the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The blog has been informative, but it is the response from one Dale Kronkright that sums up beautifully the issue of universality and diversity of conservation work:

Conservation of cultural heritage materials takes place in so many places worldwide and on so many different levels today: in the hands of the preservation practitioner, on the shelves of a museum storage room, in the policies of a collecting institution, in the aims and goals of an organization’s board and philanthropic supporters, in the analytical investigations of a conservation science laboratory, in the public engagement created in an exhibition. I frequently now get the feeling that there is now one worldwide heritage collection, investigated, managed, documented, stored, cared for and exhibited at diverse and unique museums all over the world. Some have stable funding and edifices and exist in secure locations. Some are more threatened. Few actively and meaningfully collaborate for a common purpose. The challenge appears increasingly to be one of creating a global platform onto which any of us can pose questions, carry on preservation dialogues that develop ideas, methods, materials and marshal resources where and when they are needed, while continuing to execute our daily responsibilities and institutional objectives.

It’s a powerful thought of which we who live in the micro world of individual conservation decisions need to be constantly reminded.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Deaccessioning (2)

I quoted Nick Merriman in my previous blog on deaccessioning, as he has been the leading UK advocate for museums actively grasping the nettle of deaccessioning as part of the process of good collection management. Diane Lees, the director general of the Imperial War Museum in London, writing in the latest UK Museums Journal, postulates that in these difficult financial times, we should ensure that museums should operate as efficiently as possible, and that includes deaccessioning. In her words, “we should hang our heads in shame at the amount of public money going on storing domestic rubbish”.

Tough words, but returning to Merriman, there has been an interesting process going on, of which he, as chair of the MA Ethics committee, has been at the centre. In summary Southampton City Art Gallery plans to sell various artworks to fund a new museum called the Sea City Museum, and this has been referred to the Ethics committee. The committee has weighed up the potential benefit of the development of the new museum against the potential damage to public confidence in museums. The Code of Ethics is clear that museums should refuse to undertake disposal principally for financial reasons except in exceptional circumstances.

The question is ‘are these exceptional circumstances’? From the evidence they have looked at, the committee has not been convinced there are exceptional circumstances YET, i.e. the fund raising for the new museum has only just begun, and potential sources not exhausted.
It’s quite a cute way out of the dilemma. They have not said yes or no, and left the door open for the Gallery to come back to the committee for a further judgment down the track. But it once again has highlighted what a vexed area for museums deaccessioning is.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Deaccessioning – a subject fraught with issues

Mention deaccessioning in most museum circles and you will be greeted with a response along the lines of 'wash your mouth out'. Although most Collection Management Policies include guidelines on deaccessioning, it is generally acknowledged that it is a brave museum director that proceeds to do so. Why so? Fundamentally I think it comes from an ethical view that items are left to public collections for the public good, and deaccessioning is unethical as it potentially 'sells' them off to the highest bidder. As a result museums associations codes of ethics have strict rules around deaccessioning in that the use of proceeds from deaccessioning can only be used for future acquisitions and the direct care of collections (UK Museums Association Code of Ethics 6.13 Refuse to undertake disposal principally for financial reasons). This is meant to make sure that a museum does not sell off its prize possessions to fund the general operations of the organisation.

However in putting the case for systematic deaccessioning, I heard Dr Nick Merriman, the director of Manchester Museums, talking very articulately on the subject at the Museums Association Conference in Bournemouth in 2006. His views are well summarised in 'What Are Museums For?', a conference essay by Dr. Christine Ovenden, as follows:

When the issue of disposal was raised as a direct corollary to this discussion, Merriman’s position was clear:

I think we should challenge the notion of retention in perpetuity, and instead think about reviewing collections after a certain period of time for their continuing potential. And we should be bold enough to dispose of them by transfer to other locations if they hold less potential than material subsequently collected. I should stress that potential should be assessed on a wide range of criteria including scholarly potential, which would be to do with documentation and association, as well as artistic qualities. This is essential if museums are to continue to collect – which I passionately believe they should do in order to reflect changing society; and I believe they can only continue to collect if they do so in a sustainable manner.

Thus deaccessioning did not necessarily imply destruction, whether through disposal or attrition from neglect, it could mean transferring elsewhere. Furthermore, it meant shifting the mindset away from permanent ownership and more towards reorientation and collaboration. It was also Merriman’s view that, ‘removal to a museum can destroy meaning and context in many cases, and therefore for a lot of recent material, short-term loans and recording might be much more appropriate – the idea of the distributed national collection might then truly embrace the whole nation’.

Nearer to home I have been impressed how the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo, NSW has handled the issue. Formed out of the Dubbo Museum, the director, Brigette Leece, resolved to use the moment of transformation and reinvention to dispose of material that had no relevance to the local area, which turned out to be almost one third of the collection. The process she has successfully followed with no negative feedback was to:
a) identify these items and set them aside for two years before any action was taken
b) make widely known that the process was underway through local media
c) wait until the new Museum was open in 2008, so people could see why the items were not relevant
d) offer the items either back to the donors or to other local museums, as a result of which Gulgong Museum took a substantial number

And a final word on the issue, which prompted the blog. In the latest American Museums Association journal Mark Gold puts up a case for allowing deaccessioning to happen directly for financial gain. He writes that the current financial crisis will potentially see the demise of some museums, and that the rules should be changed to allow for deaccessioning to be used for the urgent financial needs of a museum.

Will be interesting to see what response he gets.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Museums and the Recession - Part 2

I’ve blogged a number of times this year about the effect of the recession on museums (Why Museum visits rise in recessions (August 09), Museums and the recession – the lipstick phenomena (May 09), Will the recession close museums (April 09)). Both the UK and American Museum Association journals arrived last week and both carry articles on such. In the US the harsh reality of the GFC is emerging, described as a mixture of major staff cuts, evaporating endowments, shortening of opening hours and reduced operating budgets. Nobody is enjoying it very much, with 'efficiency' the name of the game, which translates into less money with which to do more as there are less staff to keep the operations going. Some have closed for a day a week, such as the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, though the CEO has put a silver lining on this in that it allows staff more time in the Museum without constant public pressure (I am reminded of that famous quote from a V&A Museum Keeper (read Senior Curator) in the 1960s to the effect that the only problem with museums was that one had to let the public in!).

In the UK the picture looks similar, though museums there tend to be more dependent on local council funding and less on endowment funding. Across the country there seems to be squeezing and cutting of budgets, with the jobs market described as ‘pretty bleak’, and major collecting institutions such as the National Archives having to reduce its running costs (and thus staff and programs) by 10% due to a standstill budget.

So what of the Australian scene? I was struck when in WA two weeks ago by the
poor state of funding for the Perth collecting institutions, with staff positions left vacant and budgets slashed. The most spectacular example of this is the complete canning of the $450 m WA Museum redevelopment. When I inquired if this came off some relatively good times, I was surprised to hear that, despite the vast tax revenue stream of the mining boom during the last decade, there had been no flow on into the cultural sector.

And when I was in Canberra last week, though less severe than WA, it became clear that the national institutions are also facing significant funding shortages. Where the picture is slightly rosier is with those organizations that are eligible to pick up parts of the $60m set aside by the federal government for heritage projects. This has almost all been allocated and significant parts of the sum have been picked up by the National Trust and historic house museums. As the money has to be spent quickly to help stimulate the economy, these organizations are flat out managing their programs to make that happen.

But we must not forget the bigger picture, unfortunately, that all this money being spent on stimulating the economy has been borrowed and will need repaying. And during THAT process is when the funding cuts may become really severe.

All this comes at a time when there is no love amongst the federal government for culture and the organizations that deliver it. This was brought home last week with the demise of the Collections Council of Australia, a body based in Adelaide and supported by the Cultural Ministers Council (of all the states). It is a body that, though criticized for some of its initiatives, has valiantly striven to bring the archives, library and museum/gallery worlds into closer communion. We shall be the poorer for its going.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or is it?

It’s intriguing how often I find I blog about an issue and then almost immediately come across something related to it. This time it is to do with my blog about how to look at pictures (posted September 28 2009) .

Now along comes the quarterly curatorial and conservation e-news from the English National Trust with an article on ‘the enduring eloquence of true beauty’. It has been written in response to the plea made by the new chairman of the National Trust, Simon Jenkins, to bring beauty back into the public debate, and to treat it as a serious issue in any discussion about preservation of art and nature. This touches on another issue I have blogged about namely the spirituality of historic places, and the way in which we must encourage their use by affinity groups who enjoy being there because of this. There is no doubt that historic houses can act as aesthetic reservoirs, providing a source of beauty that we can all tap into. The viewing of beauty, as we know if we think about it, can make us generally happier and more contented.

But what this article is all about is exploring how beauty works. Can we define it, and how much is it tempered by cultural perceptions? For instance the Italian and French formal gardens are seen as beautiful by their native citizens, whilst the English would merely see them as impressively formal, with the true beauty in horticulture lying in the ‘beauty without order’ of the rambling English garden.

And it lead me to think further about looking at pictures, and how much we value beauty in coming to decide if we like a picture or not. Name a truly beautiful picture, and to me a few Giverny Monets come to mind along with a Dutch still life or two. What does not come to mind is, for instance, a John Brack (one of which of an arid suburban landscape currently sits on my desk courtesy of the exhibition now showing at the Art Gallery of SA) .

So is beauty critical to enjoying a picture? Not at all in my view – it is just one of a number of elements that make an image worth the time to explore and understand it (now I am sounding like Kenneth Clark).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Predicting light fading

We all know the damage that light can cause to organic objects, and we also know a great deal about why it happens, but predicting how fast that damage will occur is an issue conservators continue to grapple with. The Blue Wool standards (a method whereby the empirically measured fading of blue dyes in wool can be used as a reference point for measuring fading) help to inform conservators on the light sensitiveness of objects. They in turn can then advise curators on the regularity of turnover of these objects whilst on exhibition. This of course is about limiting exposure to light (and thus damage), not about reversing that damage. There continues to be a myth that by 'resting' light sensitive material, such as watercolours, their colour can miraculously be restored.

These changeovers of light sensitive objects can add an enormous cost to a ‘permanent’ exhibition (life span of say 8 years). The National Museum of Australia has estimated that each changeover costs about $1,000 per object, by the time that conservation, relabeling, and installation is taken into account. Change objects every two years over an eight year exhibition span, and the NMA have calculated that in some object rich exhibitions, the changeovers can cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So it was exciting to hear a couple of papers by Bruce Ford at the recent AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) conference in Fremantle, WA on work he is undertaking for the NMA to try and more accurately calculate the rate of fade, and thus pragmatically reduce the high cost of the change-over of light sensitive objects. NMA has acquired an Oriel Micro fading test system which is providing the relevant data. Basically the system blasts a vast amount of light (c 10 million lux) at a tiny spot, smaller than a printed full stop. Because the light is so intense it can replicate about 10 years display at 50 lux for 8 hours a day in 10 minutes. But by doing it on an actual element of the artwork, but in such a small area that the eye cannot read the damage caused, it allows for much more accurate understanding of the rate of fade.

And the results are clearly showing that while some objects are more vulnerable to light than previously assumed, conservators have vastly overestimated light sensitivity. The result is that light levels and exhibition durations have been unnecessarily restricted and curators saddled with the difficult task of finding and interpreting suitable replacements mid exhibition.

Salutary stuff and one that will have a big impact on future planning for exhibitions and their maintenance budgets.

Monday, September 28, 2009

How to look at art

I am reading an interesting book published by the Getty as part of their Readings in Conservation series “Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage’. In it there is a fascinating excerpt from Kenneth Clark’s Looking at Pictures (he of the BBC’s Civilisation fame). It lays out how Clark looks at art and I was so struck by the fact that no one had actually ever told me how to do so, that I am blogging about it.

Here goes!

Clark sees 4 stages to the process, Impact, scrutiny, recollection and renewal:
Firstly is the impact, the first impression that takes in colour, form, shape and tone, and their relationship to each other. The initial contact with a painting is generally the most profound.
Secondly is the scrutiny, a period of inspection, seeing where the colour works well, identifying where particular skill has been used by the artist, enjoying the detail.

However this pure aesthetic sensation, as Clark calls it , rarely lasts longer than the enjoyment of the smell of an orange (about 2 minutes max) before one begins to tire, and it is time for the third stage. This involves what he calls recollection, namely recalling what we know of the artist, his life and times, the genre in which he operated, what was happening in his personal life at the time, the techniques he used etc. In Clark’s case, it of course helped to have an encyclopedic knowledge of such!

And finally there is the renewal stage, the collation of the previous stages and the return to looking once again at the artwork as a whole, and enjoying the aesthetic pleasure once again.
Try it. It doesn’t always work, but it gives a useful format for looking at art .

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Conservators as story tellers

I am at the AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) conference in Fremantle, WA being held at the WA Maritime Museum - what a great spot, right at the end of the docks looking out over the Indian Ocean. And it is showing all that is good about conservation, and ultimately why those of us lucky enough to earn our living in it as a profession are so fortunate. It is the sheer diversity of what we get to see and handle that has been reinforced in the first day of papers, from relics of the doomed HMAS Sydney to padlocks that held the Bounty mutineers prisoner on board the Pandora taking them back to trial in Britain.

But the thing that came home to me again was the ability conservators have to provide access to stories, to reveal the histories of objects. The Pandora lock is a case in point. Recovered from the shipwreck of the Pandora (she went down on the Barrier Reef drowning most of the crew and some of the mutineers), conservation has revealed the padlock is in the opened position and bears signs of damage. Is this the sign of the mutineers desperately trying to rid themsleves of their chains as the ship went down by breaking the lock?

Eve Graves from Camberwell School of Art in London, one of the great places to train as a paper conservator, tackled this story-telling issue from a different perspective. All her students have to compile a log book during their training about the stories behind the objects they are treating and how those stories influenced their decisions as to how to conserve them. This includes thinking about the way in which our senses give us access to objects. Thus an object may have remnants of a smell attached to it (perfume in gloves, tobacco smoke in books), which are a vital link to the original owner and why it is being conserved.

That's why conservation can be so rewarding.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Museums in the UK and Australia – is the scene that different?

One of the publications that I always look forward to is the monthly UK Museums Association Museums Journal. It is a much easier read than the rather densely packed American equivalent, Museum produced by the American Association of Museums. And the Australian equivalent produced by the Museums Association of Australia I am afraid to say is downright boring. One of the issues I find intriguing is where we are as a profession in Australia compared to the UK.

The immediate position is one of economic hardship big time in the UK, which at least in ‘avoiding-the-technical-recession’ Australia is not the present case. Councils across the land are laying off staff from local museums, the free admission to museums government policy is under threat (despite a massive impact on visits ranging from the Imperial War Museum up 75% to the V&A up 156% and the National Museums Liverpool up 240%) and the National Trust for Scotland is reducing its staff by one third. Overlaying all of this is also the cost of staging the London Olympics in 2012, which is sucking money out of the arts/culture sector. And then there is the problem of any spare cash being used to save art for the nation, the most recent being the serious money spent on Titian’s Diana and Actaeon jointly purchased for the small sum of £50 million by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery in London.
Against this of course are some great programs, one of the most successful being the Renaissance in the Regions which has had a massive impact on the regional museum scene.

So it is interesting to read the experience of Sara Holdsworth from the Manchester City Galleries who has just completed a three week exchange at the Art Gallery of NSW. In summary she found that:
· AGNSW was much better resourced (twice the staff and six times the budget for about the same size of collection)
· It was more collection focused and much less interested in diversity and audiences
· She couldn’t get over the cultural and social phenomenon of the Archibald and the amount of income it generates for the Gallery
Interesting stuff to ruminate on – we may be financially more fortunate at present but our horizons may also be more limited.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The future of museums according to the ABC

It’s good to see the subject of the future of museums getting some airtime on the ABC on 3rd September.

Frank Howarth, director of the Australian Museum, Louise Douglas from the National Museum of Australia and Angelina Russo from Swinburne University form a forum to discuss where museums are at and going to. It’s all good stuff, mainly talking about the close interaction between real and virtual audiences these days. It’s something that Frank has been an advocate for some time, and given he is a highly articulate speaker, he has become a bit of an international star on this front. Certainly the Australian Museum is looking good virtually (21 million visits of at least 4 minutes to their web site last year) compared to over 300,000 live visits. The ongoing question is how you link the virtual visitor to the real experience.

Louise started life at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney where I worked with her in the 1980s. It was a fabulous time to be there as the project was well funded, all sorts of new ways were being developed for planning exhibitions, there was an exciting new building going up, and we all felt the world was our oyster. In reality the Powerhouse project was truly a catalyst in the redevelopment of a number of major museums in the region – I think particularly of the Melbourne Museum and Te Papa in Wellington - and Powerhouse employees are to be found in almost every major museum in the land. However the building is now seen to suffer from some significant design faults, the most obvious being the lack of a major temporary exhibition space and an entrance that faces the wrong way, i.e. it needs a Darling Harbour front door.

Angelina is Associate Professor in the Design faculty at Swinburne specializing in museum communication. She pops up regularly in anything to do with social media and the web, and was a significant player at this year’s Museums and the Web 2009 conference in Indianapolis. I always find her contribution to be articulate and to the point. So whilst I don’t think much new comes up in the program, it is a useful summary of where a major aspect of museology thinking is at, and I suspect a bit of a revelation to wider audiences.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cleaning paintings – surprising discoveries

I have blogged before on the subject of cleaning paintings, but there comes news this week of an unusual discovery whilst a painting undergoes conservation treatment. In summary a painting being cleaned in Sao Paulo, Brazil by a private paintings restorer turned out to have an erect penis that had been overpainted some centuries ago in what is termed 'an adjustment for modesty'. Almost as much a revelation is that the restoration has cost 150,000 euros ($257,500), no doubt partly because it is a large canvas, being 3.7m by 1.6 m. Here is the post restoration image.

But it reminded me of one of the great conservation revelation stories, which is told in the very readable 'The Art of the Conservator' edited by the former head of conservation at the British Museum, Andrew Oddy ( 1992 Trustees of the British Museum). A 1610 portrait of Henry Prince of Wales on horseback by Robert Peake the Elder, was sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge for cleaning. It’s no secret that it was privately owned by one Mrs Tritton, who in six degrees of separation fashion, turned out to be the aunt of one of our clients. The painting presented as per the ‘Before Treatment’ photo.

Before Treatment

However upon examination it became clear that the entire background had been overpainted with a landscape, quite at odds with the original background (see After Treatment photo). Amazingly the original background was in reasonable condition and was able to be recovered and conserved, in the process revealing a far more interesting and detailed painting, not least because of the presence of Father Time walking behind the horse, and the wonderful feathers on the Prince’s hat. The conundrum remains as to why it was overpainted. Despite the Prince dying soon after the painting was created, it is not thought that the figure represents Death stalking him. Rather the painting appears to have been altered ( not by Peake) to give it a similar feeling to van Dyck’s famous portrait of Charles 1st on horseback.

After Treatment

Conservation is an immensely satisfying profession to be involved in (almost all the time), but projects like this are the icing on the cake.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Conservation research – where’s it all heading?

I am the joint editor of the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material’s (AICCM) Newsletter, a quarterly publication which I see as basically about ensuring the conservation profession in Australia stays connected. It’s hard work at times as no one ever volunteers any feedback, so one has to guess whether the content is what people are after. But one regular feature I particularly enjoy is an interview that I undertake with a conservator. I tend to choose someone who has trained or worked outside Australia as I believe it gives them a particular perspective on the Australian scene, which I am always keen to ensure is unpacked in the interview.

For the next edition I have interviewed Michael Marendy. Michael is a rare breed in Australia, holding a PhD (from Griffith University) in the history of costume collecting (and its conservation) in Brisbane. Talking to Michael got me thinking about where else you could undertake a doctorate in materials conservation. I discovered that the University of Melbourne would entertain the idea, and has one graduate undertaking one, but that in the entire US only one conservation course ( at the University of Delaware) offers a PhD, and that is restricted to a maximum of 3 a year. Research in conservation is not very popular it would seem at present. But then it may be because conservation courses themselves both at undergraduate and graduate level are also under threat. London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the Royal College of Art have confirmed plans to close their joint post-graduate conservation training program. This comes not long after the University of Southampton announced the closure of the Textile Conser­vation Centre (TCC).

And to add to the malaise, I participated in a depressing panel discussion with the AICCM NSW branch last week . We were meant to be talking about key issues in conservation at present ( I was busy exhorting the room to get behind serious study and engagement with the issues of relaxing environmental standards and reducing energy use in museums and galleries) , but the evening turned out to be a good old whinge about how little traction conservators have in their institutions on the big decisions. I heard the same refrain when I started in conservation 25 years ago, except that at the time we were on the ascendant and it was all about how we get engaged. Now unfortunately the profession seems to be on the descendant. Funding cuts, lack of resources, and only objects for exhibition display being conserved are all making working in institutions pretty tedious at present. Neither the Powerhouse or the Art Gallery of NSW even have heads of conservation at present, i.e. the job positions have been abolished.

Where to from here? My view is that this is all about active engagement - getting conservators to force dialogue around the issues they know something about, including those that are museum wide such as reducing energy costs whilst still ensuring the preservation of collections. By doing so they can get back into mainstream thinking at museums, and prove they are as vital a part as any of the core functions. Having a component of the profession that is actively engaged in research is going to help our cause no end.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Museum and Gallery visitor profiles

Great to read in the Sydney Morning Herald that a survey of visitors to art galleries has shown that 33% are aged between 15 and 34 (and that excludes school groups) and only 16% over 65. The survey has been undertaken by Museums and Galleries NSW, an organization I have a high regard for (and the CEO Maisy Stapleton). It is focused on delivering services to the smaller and regional museums and galleries around NSW, but they also run excellent ‘current issue’ workshops in conjunction with the Museum of Sydney. I remember one particularly memorable one where they asked a selection of museum directors to sit on a panel together and discuss what made the job pleasurable and not pleasurable. Most of the responses were predictable, but I do remember Peter Watts, then head of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW saying the hardest part was giving eulogies at staff funerals, a process he unfortunately had a done a couple of times too many for his liking. Ironically on the panel was Seddon Bennington, the head of the Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand, who died whilst hiking north of Wellington last month, and whose loss to the Australasian museum scene is significant.

However back to those stats. Are our museums and galleries really getting a third of their visitation from the 16-33 age group? My guess is that galleries may be but that museums definitely are not. And that comes back to museums unfortunately being less cool than galleries. The Powerhouse in Sydney is trying hard to overcome this especially through its focus on design and fashion exhibitions and events, which do draw a good young crowd. And more broadly their work through the inexhaustible Seb Chan in the use of the net and social media is giving them a profile which galleries have less leverage to achieve. That is, although gallery web sites may have great images to look at, the way in which museum web sites like the Powerhouse can create links and tell stories about their collections generally means such sites have more depth to them. And that in turn is where our 15 to 34 years olds are living their lives. Seb’s latest blog indeed talks about their ability to reach people who would never cross the threshold of a museum but having become engaged with the Museum’s web site are drawn to physically visit.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Making museums better by adding visitor content

Nina Simon is as live a wire as you get in the museum world and her blog reflects that liveliness big time. For my money her entries are all a little long, but the content is invariably stimulating. As her address is Museum 2.0 can guess what she writes about. I came across her at Museums and the Web 2009 in Indianapolis where she was very much a shaker and mover of the conference.

And her latest blog has once again delivered, raising an interesting issue. Nina comments on how Web 2.0 gets better by the minute as each new byte of information is added to it – and she posits what if museums got better for every visit? What if information about every exhibit was added to by the visitor, or educational problems linked each class that had visited?

It’s a good thought. Museums have for too long been stuck in the rut of permanent exhibitions being just that – permanent and given a lifespan of eight years or so. Most of them take a mammoth amount of work to get to opening and museum staff sit back exhausted, happy that it will fill the space with only a minor facelift (a coat of paint, a couple of new labels, perhaps daringly a bit of new content) after four years. The web is changing the thinking on this as on-line exhibitions can change by the hour and moreover their success or otherwise can be charted by Google Analytics.

So what if an exhibition could be added to in some way so that not only would it have changed by the time the repeat visitor decided to return, but the content just got richer and richer. I am reminded of a show I think I saw at the Migration Museum in Adelaide where a local ethnic minority had started by exhibiting examples of their community. Word had got around and other members of the community started bringing in related material. By the time the show was over, the exhibition was so much richer, and I suspect the community was also socially much stronger, so it had benefits on a number of fronts.

That brings me to another related point that there is a real opportunity to create a forum for exhibition reviews. A National Gallery blockbuster may warrant a review but when else have you ever seen a review of a new exhibition, except in professional magazines. You can read web critiques ad infinitum on the latest theatre or film in town but not of the newest exhibition. Are people not interested? I don’t believe so – if there were reviews to read I am sure they would be quickly picked up. further adding to the way in which visitors can bring value (for better or worse) to their museum/gallery-going experience.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why museum visits rise in recessions

I’ve blogged before about the mixed messages that we are getting from data about visitor traffic during the recession.

But there really does now seem to be evidence that visitor numbers are rising on both sides of the Atlantic, as reported by Brook S. Mason in The Art Newspaper published online 29 Jul 09. The English National Trust says numbers are up by 8% in May compared to last year and overall by 24% this year. As always the detail reveals a bit of an explanation in that visits to Beatrix Potter’s house in the Lake District have almost doubled since the film ‘Miss Potter’ was released. But in the US too the National Trust is seeing between a 20% and 50% increase. “Staycations” (only in America would you find such a word) in the US seem to be driving attendance at some National Trust properties. “We have anecdotal evidence confirming that people are spending less, staying closer to home and visiting more of our sites,” says James Vaughan, National Trust vice president for historic sites in Washington, DC.
“Compared to the cost of a theatre or movie ticket, seeing an artist’s home or historic site is a relative bargain,” says Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House in the US. “Plus, the buildings are air-conditioned and a ticket is only $5.” In the UK, Ms Reynolds says that the cost of a National Trust family membership is less than a single day at a theme park.
My question is do museum/historic house visitors really weigh up before a visit whether to head out to the movies or to a museum experience? Surely we are about giving them a very different experience, not one that can be compared to a movie.

My view is that we are managing to draw more visitors because we can offer them a spiritual experience, either through their being in an historic house, generally a place of beauty and one full of stories, or their being in a museum or gallery, which invariably will be a church-like space in terms of size and contain a broad array of artwork and artefacts all of which can tell stories.

In summary therefore I get the bit about Staycations, i.e that there are more people staying at home and undertaking local visits. But I don’t buy into the 'bargain' idea of a museum visit as against the theatre or the movies. We need to see them as completely different experiences and build on that. I believe the visitor does too and will continue to respond well when they see us emphasising that difference.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Virtual tours and the Chicago Experience

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of my favourite museums for two reasons: One is that is contains a wonderfully diverse collection of fine and decorative art, including a unique collection of miniature interiors from around the world, known as the Thorn Room (a gem I can never resist revisiting whenever I go there). The second reason is that it lies adjacent to the city itself between the city and the lake, so you never have to think hard about how to get there. Anyway, the Art Institute has just opened a stunning new wing designed by Renzo Piano. I was there in April just before it opened and can attest to its stunning beauty from the outside, and given the record numbers that have poured through since the opening in May, the inside is pretty special too.

Now comes news that along with the opening of the physical, the Art Institute has also redefined the virtual. As the promotional blurb says: Pathfinder is the museum's new interactive floor plan and virtual gallery tour system on its website. The first art museum in the world to dynamically combine its floor plan with fully up-to-date high-definition and panoramic views of its galleries, the Art Institute now offers web surfers and visitors planning a trip to the museum a completely unique experience of the galleries. Pathfinder features not only the interactive floor plan, which is part of the wayfinding system installed throughout the museum for the opening of the Modern Wing, but also the ability to zoom in and out of the panoramic views for closer looks at works of art, direct links to the available catalog information for individual works, and Spanish-language prompts and on-screen navigation tools.

Sounds very impressive and from an initial road test, it looks very good. But I keep asking myself with all of these on line museum tours, who is going to use it. Is a forth coming visitor really going to bother to spend the previous evening trawling around the web site looking at virtual panoramic views of the galleries? Perhaps he or she is and I am quite wrong about this. But I just get the feel this is about what the technology can do rather than what people really want. I so well remember being in awe of the first 3D rendition of an object (a Greek Vase) that I saw, and being told that this was the way of the future now that we can look at an object on screen from all sides. I think looking at the real object achieves this, doesn’t it? I am all for finding new ways of disseminating information on objects and improving access to them, which I acknowledge this does, but I shall still be really interested to see who uses it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Are Museums becoming the new churches – the place to meet?

I have blogged recently about falling visitor numbers at museums as a worldwide trend, and the opportunity for approaching the use of museum buildings in a different way (Museum visitation is falling but what are we doing about it? ), so I was particularly interested to read an article in the Times last week by Hugo Rifkind on this issue (How we learnt to dumb up and chill out).

Rifkind looked at those UK museums where visitor numbers were NOT falling (Liverpool museums - up 400% during 2008 whilst it was EU’s Capital of Culture-, the British Museum and Museum of Childhood), and found a number of theories to explain it:

1) People are using museums as secular public spaces (the new churches), where they can meet to pursue like interests . They have become places that are as much about activities as collections. The importance of providing good cafes and restaurants has now become paramount to provide a reason to return, whether it is to view a special exhibition, attend an event, or be part of a club or group that meets regularly there. This all about affinity groups wanting to use the space because they feel attracted to it (in just the same way as historic house museums have the potential to be used).

2) People are wanting more challenging entertainment – the ‘dumbing up’ theory. Rifkind quotes Neil MacGregor, boss man at the British Museum, in saying that ‘there is a huge desire to understand and to address complexity, and to spend the time to do so”. It is not true, MacGregor says, that we live in an era of dropping attention spans. Not sure I agree with this one – if the current crop of TV programs is anything it go by, we are inexorably seeing dumbing down rather than up.

3) Free entry and recessionary times means more people are taking advantage of museums as places of entertainment. Free entry has a side benefit of providing people with a sense of ownership. I think this explains why even in recessionary times whenever there is an appeal for the purchase of some major artwork about to be lost overseas, invariably in the UK the monies are raised. The public feels that part of the public cultural collection is at risk, and is prepared to chip in.

I find this stuff fascinating, and more to the point critical in understanding how we can continue to increase visitation.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The power of the real

It’s so stimulating to achieve a museum visit that reinforces the power of the real. Much as I promote how digitizing collections and getting them on the web is encouraging people to come and see the real thing, it still gives me a buzz to find a museum full of visitors all seriously engaged and clearly enjoying looking at real objects.

Such a place is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the adjoining Pitt Rivers Museum. Despite living in Oxford for three years I had never been to either which I now much as they are both museums that would repay many repeat visits. The Museum of Natural History is housed in a wonderful Victorian Gothic building opened in 1860, with the main display area being the Great Court. This is a cathedral like space with a glass roof supported by cast iron columns and surrounded by four arcades in the form of a cloister. It is a space that immediately makes one want to be there, a real intake of breath place – I liken it to the new central court at the British Museum. How important is that in museum design! Beautifully designed exhibits and lots of real objects to touch from fossils to stuffed birds and animals. Kids everywhere, and not just in school groups, i.e. they had dragged their parents along for a further visit.

Off the back of the Great Court opens the Pitt Rivers Museum. I had read about the redo this has recently had in museum journals, but on first site you would not know it. No glitzy well lit new showcases, in fact no well lit anything – it is all kept dark for reasons of conservation, so much so that torches are provided at the information desk! The Museum was founded in 1884 when Augustus Pitt Rivers, an influential figure in the University’s archaeology and anthropology departments who gave his collection of 20,000 objects to the University. One of his gift conditions was that the objects should be displayed by how they were made or used rather than by age or cultural origin. The collection has now grown to more than half a million artefacts, and it feels like most of it is on display. The showcases are packed solid with objects many with the original tiny hand written labels. It goes against all that modern museological thinking promotes – there is no start or finish, no story to follow – but it certainly works. Again the museum was full of people peering into the depths of dark showcases. Why? Because of the drawing power and fascination of the real.

It’s an exhilarating eye opener to why people continue to visit museums – and more on that in my next blog.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The power of place in historic house museums

Visiting various National Trust properties in the UK in June, I was reminded about the power of place. Stunning as these places are physically, whether it be their gardens e.g. Sissinghurst, their buildings, e.g. Waddesdon Manor, or their collections, e.g. Kingston Lacy, the reason visitors want to come back to them is more about the ‘spirituality’ of the place than the aesthetic pleasures they provide. As numbers of visitors to historic house museums continue to fall from highs in the 1980s, particularly in the US and Australia, the challenge is to find ways to attract people back and at the same time new audiences.

One way that the English National Trust is having significant success in attracting repeat or new visitors is by creating groups of like minded people that enjoy meeting at one of their properties because of the power of the place. By this I think they mean that it is a place where they can meet people who share their interests, enjoy social activities, even volunteer to help conserve their heritage, all in the setting of a place that has a ‘spiritual’ dimension through its history, beauty, or association. They have over 350 active groups.

Another clever way is by associating the place with a good gastronomic experience. This goes beyond just having a good restaurant. Using the slogan “Savour the taste, remember the place”, the National Trust is pushing the line that if you can give people good food in an inspiring place then again they will be more likely to come back. Overlaying this with a focus on organic food grown on Trust farms gives it another dimension. As the Trust says, they ‘passionately believe that there has to be a change in the way we all think about food, how it’s produced, where we buy it, and how we cook it’ (has Jamie Oliver had THAT much influence?!) .

The National Trust in England is one of the great heritage success stories of how to build a vast and loyal membership base (well over 3 million), and they have obviously been helped by a large population on a small island and some extraordinary properties. However the National Trust in Australia could learn from their focus on the power of place. As a board member of the NSW branch, I look forward to seeing what we can do.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When is a painting over cleaned?

Conservation as a distinct profession only really took off after the Second War. Prior to that there were art restorers who had been around for centuries, but they lacked the scientific understanding of the causes of deterioration that now underpins conservation. However that understanding has not stopped the ongoing controversies over how far paintings should be cleaned, particularly Old Masters. I was taught that the Old Masters would always have intended their artworks to have been seen in the bright colours that we now view them, and that the varnish coatings they applied (and which oxidised and darkened to give the gloomy look of many pre cleaned Old Masters) were only meant to protect the surface not darken with age. As with life, the older I get I realize this issue is not quite so black and white.

Two events have reminded me of this recently. One is the publication of Writings in Art Restoration, by David Bomford, ex Senior paintings conservator at the National Gallery in London and now Head of Collections at the Getty in LA. David has probably handled more Old Masters than the rest of us the proverbial hot breakfasts (he is a world expert on Rembrandt), and he has compiled here a fascinating compendium of articles and critiques written over a number of centuries on the subject of paintings restoration. Go no further than this if you want a definitive overview on the subject.

The second is the recent obituary in the Times on Frank Mason. Frank was a New York based artist who championed the cause of the destruction of paintings by over cleaning. As he said "A fine oil painting does not possess a hard impermeable surface, but is comprised of layers of ground pigments, suspended in elastic films of various oils and varnishes which are superimposed, interwoven, and melting into each other in a way which not even the artist can accurately map. In spite of what conservators would have us believe, science cannot objectively scrutinize a painting and accurately enumerate all of its components in a meaningful way: a plain chemical analysis is too crude a tool to measure the ineffable".

Mason led a number of campaigns to stop major galleries such as the Met using what he deemed over harsh methods of conservation, combining with Pietro Annigoni (he of the famous portrait of the Queen) in protesting about the National Gallery, London’s approach. Annigoni took this one stage further in 1970 painting the word ‘murderers’ in capital letters on the doors of the Gallery! But Mason’s most public campaign was against the cleaning of the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Mason enlisted the support of some hard hitters on this, and although he was unsuccessful in stopping the project, his campaign did lead to the formation of Artwatch International, which was established to protect the integrity and dignity of works and art and architecture from injurious or falsifying restorations.

I’m a great fan of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I am an even bigger fan of having these types of discussions as only by such debate do we ensure we can get it right more times than we don’t.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Museum visitation is falling but what are we doing about it?

I’ve heard anecdotally for some time that the number of young people attending classical music concerts is dwindling, and certainly the lack of interest from my children in such despite studying music through to final year at school has reinforced this. But now out of the US has come news of double-digit rates of decline for classical music, jazz, opera, musical theater, ballet and dramatic plays attendance since 1982.

The same study has unfortunately also shown that the percentage of eighth-graders who reported that they visited an art museum or gallery with their classes dropped from 22 percent in 1997 to 16 percent in 2008. As the National Endowment for the Arts has also released new data showing that fewer adults were choosing an art museum as a leisure-time destination, the trend seems to be all downwards. In 1992 26% of adults reported that they visited an art museum, but the number for 2008 dropped to 23%. The exception, perhaps not surprisingly, was in Washington DC, where 40% of adults said they had visited a museum in 2008, reflecting tourism and free admission at most major museums.

I can’t lay my hands on equivalent data for Australian museums , but I’ve seen similar in relation to falling numbers visiting historic house museums. At the National Trust of Australia (NSW) we’ve realized we cannot buck the world-wide trend so we are looking at different ways of making the house museums work. This ranges from encoraging affinity groups to use them ( e.g. local community book clubs) to maximizing opportunities to use the site for functions/ hire out in innovative ways. Are museums doing the same, i.e. being innovative with the use of their resources? I immediately think of where the web fits into all of this. We know that there is evidence that the more activity there is around museum web sites, the more physical visits seem to occur. And those physical visits can be spread more widely - places like the Powerhouse Museum are regularly opening up their stores to provide greater access to their collections.
What we do unfortunately know is that government funding bodies still set great store by numbers coming through the door, so these falling trends do not bode well for the sector.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Museums and the future (2)

I’ve blogged before about the Center for the Future of Museums report Museums and Society 2034. Such publications take a bit of time to filter out and debates around them to start. So there is now some interesting discussion getting underway, such as:

- The Report picks up on the aging of western society, with people staying fitter longer, and due to current economic necessity, staying in jobs longer, thus causing the risk of a generation of talented individuals not gaining employment in museums. Is this not a broader phenomena and problem, I ask? Certainly I do hear that jobs in museums are very hard to come and I do wonder where graduates of museums studies courses are finding employment. But then isn’t it part of the attributes of Gen Y-ers that they are resilient and will find other ways to contribute? Certainly Museums and the Web 2009 was full of young people working in and around the museums sector and the web.
- Accessible design is something that keeps rearing its head – this is all about ensuring that everything we exhibit in museums can be accessed by 100% of the population whatever their background or physical state. Maybe by 2034 we will achieve this, but I can’t help feeling that in the process we run the risk of compromising the very things we are trying to make accessible.
- The Virtual taking over from the Real is another theme that keeps reoccurring. My view is this debate has been and gone. The virtual cannot supplant the real, and indeed if anything it enhances the experience of the real. The virtual makes access far more possible, but cannot provide the excitement and thrill of seeing the real in the flesh.
- Museums as energy hogs – now this one resonates with all that I blog about. We cannot sustain the current levels of environmental controls, and have to design museums that rely on passive climate control systems, with a whole new approach to operations.

As always reports like these are as useful at engendering debate around the issues as much as they are about really understanding what the crystal ball is showing us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Using the museum building to its full potential

The role museums play in society seems to be much under discussion in these recessionary times. One US wag has suggested they should be turned into soup kitchens, using their generally large, warm and centrally located buildings to look after inner city down and outs. The interesting broader question is whether it is entirely ethical for museums to focus on ‘higher’ aesthetic/educational/intellectual matters whilst basic social needs go unmet.

I must confess to being a bit bored by such discussions, not because they are not valid but because they lead nowhere. It’s like discussing whether the NSW Government should have contributed $3 million to completing St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney a few years back to allow two spires to be erected. No benefit whatsoever to the adjacent down and outs but a mighty aesthetic improvement.

What DOES intrigue me is what more we could do with the spaces in museums by leveraging off the subject matter they contain. I’ve always loved the idea that the Royal Society for the Arts in the UK has had of setting up coffee conversations in Starbucks. As I understand it, they place a convenor/facilitator in a high street Starbucks at a regular appointed time, who choses a subject and invites the coffee drinkers to stay a while and get into a good debate.

Wouldn’t museums be such good places to do that, acting as convening places and drawing people into lively discussions, using one of their exhibits as a focal or starting point. It doesn’t have to be for ever – just something that is tried and if it takes off so much the better.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Recessionary effects on conservation

I have blogged before about the impact of the recession and the GFC on museums, particularly in the US, where so many of them rely on philanthropic foundations for their principal source of revenue.

But now out of left field has come news that Stanford University Libraries is laying off 32 employees. Now that is having a wide world ripple effect in the conservation profession because Stanford has for years published two of the principal communication tools that conservators rely on, namely CoOL (Conservation On Line) and the Cons Dist List.

Between them they have been one of the most important ways for conservators to share and find information. The former is estimated to provide access to some 120,000 documents, an incredible resource now at serious risk of being lost. The latter has been the meeting and stomping ground for a never ending range of issues that we as conservators seek to share and understand. Not to mention the fact that the ConsDist List has been the principal resource for advertising conservation job vacancies.

AIC and IIC have already waded in to express their concern about the potential demise of these vital resources, but it is difficult at present to see who is out there that is prepared to take them on.

Walter Henry, the organizer of both for the last 22 years, has some heartfelt comments to make as he sees all that he has worked on about to collapse:

"It has been a great pleasure and privilege to work with this community and I look forward to finding ways to continue to do so. I’ve always held that conservation professionals were, as a class, unusually committed to the cause they serve; we really do care deeply about the cultural materials we are lucky enough to work with, and that care takes form in a remarkable dedication to theprofession, to the ethical foundations upon which it is built, and to the community of practitioners from whatever discipline or specialty.

So, at the beginning of what would have been the DistList’s twenty third year it is with great sadness, but also with some sense of pride, that I finally give up this enterprise and that of Conservation OnLine as a whole. I don’t know exactly what will happen to the resources here but I have every faith that their fate will be in good hands.

I would like to thank, with all sincerity, Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources, my own department, the systems and IT staff, and most of all the directorate, who have been unfalteringly supportive of my work all these years, and I know would continue to be so were the world in just a little better shape than it is now."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tracking those visitors

Visitor evaluation is a significant part of the operations of any major museum or gallery these days. Understanding what attracts visitors, and most critically why they would want to come back or recommend others to make a visit has become a sophisticated process. Museum personnel now specialize in such activities, and the tools at their command have moved on from the simple exit poll and questionnaire, not that this is not a valuable part of such evaluation.

With the rise of Google analytics, we now know more and more about who visits museum web sites, which pages they go to and how long they stay on each page. But when it comes to physical museum visits, we generally know how many pass through the front door, but very little else about where they go or what they do, once they are inside.

I’ve long been interested in seeing how technologies developed in big sectors, such as retail, can be applied to our specialist sector, which will always have limited resources to develop its own technological solutions. To that end, I have become very interested in how the Shoppertrak retail traffic counting system can be utilized in our sector.

Shoppertrak is a Chicago-based traffic counting company, which has developed some very smart hardware and associated software primarily for the retail sector. They use stereophonic digital cameras to count traffic. This is not only the most accurate form of counting, but because it is stereophonic it can, through triangulation, work out the height of visitors, and thus differentiate adults from children. In addition the system can separate out staff from visitors, using RFID tags, and work out ‘dwell times’ in front of displays.

But it is the analytical tools that they have developed that really gives this data value. Shoppertrak suck all the data back to Chicago for analysis over night and then issue it verified and analyzed according to the client requirements. This could be as simple as the raw traffic data detailed hour by hour or as sophisticated as analysis of the data against trends over the past week, month or year, including ‘what if’ scenarios for working out anything from guide/attendant requirements to when and where the most dense visits are occurring, and what are the most popular exhibitions and indeed exhibits within them.

For an industry which still relies largely on manual clickers or simple IR beams to work out visitor traffic, we need to lift our game to get some more sophisticated metrics. After all government budgets can be determined by such. We at Smarttrack RFID are looking at what we can do to tailor this great technology to our sector.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Web 2.0 and the museum sector

The American Institute for Conservation has just held its annual conference in Los Angeles, around which there has been some interesting side discussions on the use of email and the web for providing information to AIC members. As one of the organisers has said "While some people are very comfortable these days with all their information being digital, there are others who still use dial-up connections (due to geographical limitations), are Luddites (not meant in a derogatory way) or just prefer paper and appreciate its longevity (understandable given our constituency)."

This has prompted some great correspondence, turning up some really useful information around the fundamental change that web 2.0 technologies is bringing about in the way information is shared, and how we communicate. Try:

"The American Press on Suicide Watch," by Frank Rich in the NYT

"The Death of Scholarly Publishing," by Larry Cebula in the Northwest History Blog.

"Why Blog? Does Blogging Matter?," Charles Ellwood in Ancient World Bloggers

"The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online," by Kevin Kelly in Wired Mag

Is blogging really making a difference, I ask myself, or am I just being self indulgent in writing about issues which interest me? My view is that I have spent my working life collecting and sifting information in all sorts of ways, a process which constantly stimulates me. Blogging seems to me to bring about a form of communication with which there is no other direct comparison. In particular it allows for the passing on of information as per the articles above in a way which no other medium offers. used to quite admire people who made a virtue out of not using email (or mobile phones), and their (possibly) calmer lives. Now I know they are missing out on too much. Roll on Web 2.0, I say.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Museums and the Web 2009 – the final word

And the final word, I promise on this. It’s always interesting to see post mortems on international conferences like this, because everyone comes away with a slightly different perspective. The UK is about to run its own one day version (World Wide Wonder: museums on the web) and Sara Wajid writing in the latest edition of the UK Museums Association Journal makes some succinct comments on MW2009. What she got out of it is that the web is moving from being a place where museums can dump their collection content and feel ‘ job done’ to a place which facilitates an online landscape, which is a fertile breeding ground for future museum visitors and donors. She cites the dynamic Nina Simon, who runs the Museum 2.0 blog who said at the conference that ‘ ...people in positions of power in museums are finally getting interested in the internet … as a starting point for innovations.. They are looking for information about how the rise of the social web will affect the business model and viability of museums”.

Sara also picked up how Google analytics are now providing more and more sophisticated data about web site use (incidentally now considerably better than physical visitor data), but that museum evaluation staff are reluctant to switch to it because it notoriously shows lower (although more accurate) figures. Don’t think that response is going to hold water much longer.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Queen Victoria rises again on the Tamar

Just back from a quick visit to Launceston, where exciting things are happening at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. The Museum extended itself onto the Inveresk Railyard site 8 years ago, and since then there has been some pressure to relinquish the original Museum site in Royal Park to avoid the ineffiencies of a dual campus. However Patrick Filmer Sankey, who was appointed director in 2008 has conceived of the idea of clearly separating functions, so that the fine and decorative art and design collections (the Gallery function) are retained at Royal Park and the historical and natural science collections (the Museum function) are exhibited at the Inveresk site.

The active support of the City Council and the State Government has quickly seen $7m thrown into the equation, and the Royal Park site has now closed for its revamp with a late 2010 opening planned.

The even more exciting thing about this plan is that it will allow all the internal additions and linings from this late Victorian /Edwardian purpose built gallery to be removed and the original spaces reclaimed. I had a dusk tour with project development manager Glenda King yesterday showing me tantalizing glimpses of what is going to be possible.

So with the revamped QVMAG , probably the country’s finest regional gallery, coming on line next year along with the privately funded MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) at Morilla on the outskirts of Hobart, Tasmania is going to be a significant cultural destination.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Museums and the recession – the lipstick phenomena?

We all know about the theory of people turning to things that make them feel good in trying economic times – the so-called ‘lipstick phenomena’ driven by increased sales of lipsticks in recessions.

But now comes news from the UK that it appears museum visits may fall into the same category, with a recent Art Fund museum survey showing that over 35% of museums recording an increase in visitation, and 38% managing to hold numbers stable. Ok, that still means that over 25% saw a drop, but the overall picture is more positive than negative.

Unfortunately the funding picture is nowhere near as rosy, with 65% of museums suffering a budget cut, and 60% expecting further cuts. That is resulting in direct reductions in staff, ironically just as the rise in visitor numbers requires more staff resources. One of the consequences is that staff are being diverted to front of house duties away from curatorial and other functions. There is also pressure on volunteers to fill broader roles.

More broadly the health of the sector is difficult to read. On the one hand it appears that shop sales and charitable giving (where applicable) are holding up reasonably well. And one small silver lining is that reduced market prices are allowing acquisitions to continue with some gems finding their way into public hands at bargain prices.

On the other hand it is clear that corporate spending in the form of direct giving and venue hire for corporate entertainment has died. The fall in the value of investments for charitable organizations is also clearly going to effect the funds they have at their disposal.
And the biggest impact of all, which I have discussed in a previous blog, is still to be felt, when the claw back resulting from the current government spending begins. That is when the sector is really going to have to be on its toes as funding cuts bite.

If that is the UK story, how is Australia looking? Difficult to tell is my view. There are funding cuts occurring at major institutions, but it appears that contract staff rather than permanent staff are being effected. And whilst the economic picture here is not as serious as in the UK, there is no doubt that the same overall scenario holds.

Friday, May 8, 2009

RFID solutions for tracking collections

I have long been a fan of the application of new technologies to the museum sector. The fact remains that the sector is too small in most instances to invest in developing its own, so must rely on other large industry sectors to undertake the R&D and then see if there is application to our own world.

RFID or Radio Frequency Identification has been around for some years now primarily in the warehouse and freight tracking sectors. The original concept was that RFID use would take over from bar codes, as it offered not only the opportunity of storing increased data but also no requirement for line of sight reading, i.e. RFIDs can be read through packaging material. Supermarket shopping could dispense with the check out person, and rely on a portal scanner.

The stumbling block however has been the cost of the RFID tag, which as it contains both a microchip and a small antenna costs in the region of US20c as against a bar code which cost US.01 c.

The reality therefore is that we are unlikely to see rollout into the supermarket shelves until the price can be reduced to a viable level, but to give some idea of how fast this technology is taking off, UPM, once of the largest tag providers in the US is printing 400 million tags this year and expects this figure to be over 1 billion by the end of 2010.

The library sector is already using RFID technology extensively, though mostly using the older High Frequency (HF) technology. The museum sector is only just beginning to see its benefits, which are considerable, and can be summed up as follows:
  • line of sight not required, so objects/artworks can have their accession number read whilst in crates or on the wall
  • tags can be read up to 5 m away
  • multiple tags can be read at one time, when groups of objects are being moved
    the data, and the personnel moving the objects, can be directly integrated into most collection management systems
  • misplaced objects can be found
  • audits and stocktakes can be fast tracked
  • collection preservation is improved through reduced handling

Frustrated by lack of any RFID providers who are seriously looking to work with museums and galleries, we have set up a company to provide this service, Smarttrack RFID . We are using the more advanced technology of Ultra High Frequency (UHF) tags, which now have a global standard. We are already running pilot projects in Australia and the US, and finding considerable enthusiasm for the accuracy and cost benefits of the technology.
Come and see us at the Museums Australia National Conference in Newcastle from May 17th to 20th, where we have a stand.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Final thoughts from Museums and the Web 2009

The Museums and the Web 2009 conference provided much food for thought as to where the online world for museums is heading, some of which I have covered in other blogs. Some final thoughts from a couple of the more thought provoking speakers:

Maxwell Anderson - Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA):
  • The web provides great tools for accessing the back of house operations of museums, including the on-average 95% of the collections which are not on exhibition at any one time.
  • How can web technology seek to emulate the thrill of proximity, i.e. achieve elements of the real in a virtual way?
  • The IMA has established substantial transparency of operations using its ‘dashboard’ component of the web site to put up a wide range of internal information, such as staff numbers per section, visitor numbers, value of its endowment by quarter ( not pretty reading at present, I imagine), objects proposed for deaccessioning, annual report, tax return. Not sure what this really achieves, beyond making them feel good that they ARE being transparent.

Dan Zambononi – Box ( interesting web site by the way):

Dan reported on an interesting exercise his company undertook, which involved collating collection data that was readily accessible on the web, using screen scraping and spider technology. The driver was that there are currently multiple one stop shops for collection searching from the massive Euro project MICHAEL, to Australia’s own CAN ( Collections Australia Network) project. Whilst this might not exactly be allowed under current copyright rules, he was able to use the existing data and re engineer it to make it more useable. I drew from his paper a couple of issues:

  • Lots of technical variations and inconsistency in the way information is presented, particularly over the format used for dates and locations
  • Ultimately there was not much improvement in the quality of the collated data than that which a well worded Google search could achieve

And my final thought - the conference was full of lots of highly stimulating chat about what is happening in this space and where it might all be going, but the practical driver for evaluating it must continue to be asking the question ‘is it ultimately useful in supporting the building of knowledge and improving access to collections?’. Because what came clearly out of the conference is that there is certainly no pot of gold sitting at the end of the process – the golden grail of seriously monetizing on-line collection data remains as elusive as ever.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Climate change and collections – are we stuffed?

When the effect of climate change on museums and collections hits the New York Times, it indicates that it is being taken seriously. On April 5th 2009 the NY Times ran an article entitled "Keeping Art, and climate, controlled”. It summarises the recent forum held in London at the National Gallery on climate change and collections masterminded by Jerry Podany, the President of IIC and the chief conservator at the Getty. It also discusses the initiative’ of Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate to re-examine the existing guidelines for collection care of 22 degrees C and 55% RH. It is clear that there is movement in the camp on this one, but the question is how fast is it going to happen. It may come down to the question of conservation, and conservators are by nature cautious. That’s how they are taught to view objects and potential treatments, and rightly so as despite the requirement of reversibility in all conservation treatments, in reality there is often no going back once a particular treatment has been decided upon.

So the recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald by John Collee, a medic turned climate change expert, makes bleak reading when he says: “the death of the Murray Darling, the drying of SE Australia to a tinderbox, the increased flooding of low lying areas, the defrosting of the Siberian tundra, the dramatic loss of rainforest, and the break up of the Antarctic ice shelf are happening as predicted but – if you believe the evidence - at several times the expected speed. I do believe the evidence. Which leads me, personally, to the bleak conclusion that the human race is stuffed.” Strong words, but it brings home that if we are going to avoid the said ‘stuffed’ state, we need to move a very great deal faster that we are at present.

So when it comes to discussing collections, we need to move quickly past the process of reviewing environmental guidelines and start looking at the whole carbon foot print of museums. If we have to wear coats in winter to save on heating fuel, and avoid the dryness that heating causes (and which then at present requires rehumidifaction to achieve required levels of RH), so be it.

But let’s get moving, past the discussion and into action. We have possibly only 6 years to radically lower emissions before we face calamitous and unstoppable global warming. Every sector must play its part, and museums have a very real opportunity to lead on this one