Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Digitial delusion or a real new age for museums?

I have been challenged this week by a blog from Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen entitled ‘The Digital Delusion’. Challenged, because I thought I would be blogging to disagree with the blog’s premise, namely that the future for museums does not lie in digitisation, but the more I think about it, the more I actually agree.

Let me explain my position. The concept of getting collection information online by the process of digitisation is one I believe must be supported at every level, so that information can be accessed, cross referenced and understood. I came across a beauty this week at Hortus Camdensis. This is an illustrated online catalogue of the 3300 plants grown by Sir William Macarthur at Camden Park, south of Sydney, between 1820-1860. Combined with garden records of the time, including Sir William’s diaries, essays on laying out an orchard in Colonial Australia, wine growing etc and notes on changes in nomenclature, it is a model of what collection digitisation can achieve in providing not only access to a hitherto hidden catalogue, but also a pile of useful related information.

Beyond this, using technology to provide access to digitised records in an easily accessible way is also something we must continue to explore and promote. There are few better exemplars than the Powerhouse in pioneering the use of on-line collection data. Look for instance at how they use Flickr to provide access to collection information. But also check out how the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has launched an app to provide heaps more information on objects in the Museum through the use of iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches, either the visitors’ own, or provided on loan by the Museum. MONA, the new Museum of Old & New Art due to open in Hobart next January is planning to go a stage further, providing no labels to objects, with all information delivered via a mobile device. Exciting times, especially with iPad use. Its’ larger screen is going to offer all sorts of opportunities for delivery of video, as well as being a unit that a group or family can enjoy together rather than the individual experience of the iPhone or iPod.

So I fully agree with the sentiments of AMNH President, Ellen Futter, when launching their latest app that “the digital age is upon us, and we want to integrate education with technology”.

Why then the digital delusion? Museion’s point is that museums have got carried away with the concept of digitisation for its own sake without really unpacking why we must digitise. The process has been driven by ‘digital immigrants’, i.e. museum people who were not born into the digital world but have become fascinated by the technology – count me amongst them. The result is a mass of digital museum projects, some of which work (see above), but many of which don’t. How often have I seen unused computer monitors in museums provided to allow public access to the Collections – why? Partly because the digital natives, i.e. those born into a digital world, for whom they are largely provided, are not interested because they make such poor use of digital media. The overlap between the world of the digital immigrant and the digital native is only partly bridged.

As Museion points out the future is not digital, in that it is not about digitisation just for digitisation’s sake. It will and must remain real, that is grounded in real objects. Museums have a unique position to display that materiality, albeit using the undoubted power of digitisation and digital media to maximise how that materiality is accessed. We need to sell that unique ability which is only going to become more valuable as the digital world swirls around us.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Brooklyn Museum - and the value of visitor numbers

I blogged recently on the issue of falling visitor numbers at the Brooklyn Museum, and was politely reprimanded by Sally Williams, the Public Information Officer at the Museum, for not looking at the ten year average attendance as a more accurate statistic.

But it raises a fundamental question as to whether the health of a collecting institution can be measured by the number of people who come through the front door. And it is particularly apt that the New York Times should focus on this issue (and some others) in “Sketching a future for Brooklyn Museum”. As the NY Times says, “For more than a century the Museum has been one of the country’s most important cultural institutions, and for more than a decade it has also caused controversy … By some measures it has succeeded. By others, including attendance goals articulated by the Museum itself, it has not.”

The NY Times asked various experts to comment on issues confronting the Museum including falling attendance, and their responses are enlightening, particularly in the mixed views on the value of visitor numbers. Philippe de Montebello, the recently retired Director of the Met, kicks off, reflecting on the difficulty of positioning the Brooklyn Museum when so many world class museums exist just over the water in Manhattan. He takes the high-brow view that a visit to any museum should be an uplifting experience, whereas the Brooklyn has headed for the popular culture route (implicitly implying a dumbing down of the content). Karen Brooks Hopkins, President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has leapt on this popular culture as a key to success, saying that although visitor numbers are down, “the demographics are unbeatable: Brooklyn audiences are young, diverse and adventurous, which has enormous positive implications for the future.”

Rochelle Slovin, Director of the Museum of the Moving Image, has taken the same view highlighting the popular hip hop and salsa Saturdays at the Museum (a recent one on July 3rd drew an incredible 24,000 people) as no different to string quartets at the Met evenings in terms of concept – just a different flavour for a different audience.

Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and an increasingly visible museum commentator, posits that with so little revenue coming from admissions (typically 2-4%) the focus should be on evaluating museums on their contribution to research, education and conservation, along with their ability to be a hotbed of creativity.

Peter Marzio, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, takes a different tack, praising the Brooklyn for pioneering a new path and “transforming itself into an ecumenical museum by focusing its collections and programs on the diverse neighbourhoods of Brooklyn”. Interesting use of the word ecumenical – I think he means drawing together in a common space the many different local groups.

Finally into this space has gamely strode the Director of the Museum, Arnold Lehman. No-one particularly likes a panel of experts telling them how to run their museum better, but Lehman has graciously acknowledged all their comments as valuable.

And his response is a simple one, namely that the Brooklyn Museum’s interest is in who is coming to the Museum, not in their numbers. As he states, the Museum’s commitment to engage with the local community, rather than be challenged by it, has resulted in the most diverse and youngest audience of any general fine arts museum in the country.

So who wins this most interesting dialogue (and would that we could have such a discussion in the Australian press)? Unfortunately, despite the feel-good nature of the plaudits that many of the experts heap on the Brooklyn Museum and its international reputation for being innovative, the fact that the article has been written directly results from press around falling visitor numbers. And as Wenda Gu, a Brooklyn artist says, “Attendance is the most important and objective measurement of a museum’s success”.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Conservators discovering the picture

There is a view amongst conservators that virtually all of the world’s great paintings have now been cleaned and conserved and their secrets revealed, and we are moving to a stage of care and maintenance of these paintings, whilst falling back on the generally less exciting grade two paintings to ply our active conservation skills.

So it is heartening to come across no less than three recent stories of conservation treatments which show we can still get excited about what is being undertaken or revealed.

The first is the discovery of a lost Velazquez in the basement of Yale University Art Gallery, as reported in The Art Newspaper and interestingly, even pictured in the Sydney Morning Herald (everyone loves a story about a lost treasure turning up in the metaphoric attic). Long thought to be by an unknown 17th Century Seville artist, entitled ‘The Education of the Virgin’, conservation revealed the distinctive long brush strokes and sophisticated naturalism of the Spanish master Diego Velazquez.

The second is a good news story about the 1546 panel painting ‘The Last Supper’ by Giorgio Vasari, which was severely damaged in the great Florence Flood of 1966 (also reported in The Art Newspaper). Underwater for 12 hours, the panels absorbed water and swelled, only to crack up as they dried out and shrank. Now thanks to a Getty Foundation grant, a team of panel painting conservators, including those learning these specialist skills, are working in Florence to secure the flaking areas, and remove the legacy of the flood, which includes mud, mould, diesel oil and waste from the overflowing Florentine sewers.

And the third story, as reported in The Guardian, like the first also relates to conservators unlocking a hidden masterpiece. In this case, it is a painting by Renaissance superstar Tintoretto, which hung in a filthy state for decades in Kingston Lacy, a National Trust pile in Dorset, UK. Of doubtful provenance and so dirty the figures could hardly be made out, it hung on the back stairs until finally its turn came for conservation.

Interestingly, whilst the conservation revealed it was definitely a Tintoretto, it also raised an issue as to what the image was about. Known for years as ‘Apollo and the Muses’, experts are puzzled about what is going on. It is currently on its fifth name in the last few months, namely ‘Apollo (or Hymen the Greek God of Marriage) crowning a poet and giving him a spouse’.

The reality is, whatever the title, it’s the artist whose name really matters and the vital role of conservators in revealing and authenticating this is once again confirmed. Great work, folks!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

MOMA and too much of a good thing?

I have recently blogged twice about Glenn D Lowry (here and here), the current superstar of the US Museum director scene and his status is justified by a recent article in the New York Observer.

Three million people visited MOMA in the year to the end of June 2010, a new record in its 81 year history. Why the success? On the face of it, because it seems to be doing all the right things in current museological thinking. It’s a participatory museum, it’s a social space where people want to come to see and be seen and it has a dynamic exhibition program of temporary and permanent collections, along with associated media and film. Most notably, it has managed to reduce its typical visitor from a 55 year old woman to a 40-something of either sex.

But of course such success does not come without its critics. At the glitterati end, the opening night parties are frequently uncomfortably packed and amongst the art critics it is seen to be far too crowded to allow for any real engagement or ability for contemplation of the artworks. In the words of Tom Eccles, Chair of Curatorial Studies at Bard College, “the drive to become a social space is more of a fetish in museum theory right now”.

Well guys, you can’t have it both ways. On the one hand, static or falling visitor numbers are bewailed and the need to make museums more welcoming encouraged, and then when the crowds do come it is seen to “compromise” the experience. (I am reminded of the V&A keeper who proclaimed the Museum was at its best when there were no visitors).

Within this context, there’s an interesting new book out entitled ‘Do Museums Still need Objects?’ by Steven Cann (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). Cann’s premise is that objects have a diminishing role in museums as people have lost faith in the ability of objects alone to tell stories and convey knowledge. He posits that the move to turn museums into social spaces has been at the expense of the objects, with the focus being on the space itself (witness the architectural statements of Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum or Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim).

I would contend that Cann misses the point. Yes, the number of objects on display may have become less and yes, successful museums are succeeding through creating social spaces where people want to be, but the draw card is always going to be the real object. We know the power of the real over the virtual is compelling. And by having fewer objects on display often their ability to tell stories can be enhanced rather than diminished. MOMA may be too popular for its own good in some people’s eyes, but its success is fundamentally due to the depth of its collections and the way in which it interprets and makes them accessible.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director