Thursday, May 19, 2011

That pesky issue of deaccessioning

I see I have not mentioned the word deaccessioning in this blog for at least 18 months, but the issues that I wrote about then just keep on coming up.

The latest salvo comes from students of the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library upset by Senior Librarian John Shipp’s plan to deaccession 500,000 books and periodicals

John is a thoroughly decent man who does not deserve the vitriol being thrown at him, but that is what the process of deaccessioning seems to generate whenever it is mentioned.

The reality behind this situation is spelt out in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on May 14th 2011, where a former staffer at the Library writes that “This is a decision that has been avoided by librarians at the University of Sydney for the past 40 years. Libraries cannot be allowed to grow indefinitely”. The writer then cites how a previous librarian accepted all the discards from American libraries in a large shipment that is still cluttering up the stacks.

Meanwhile in the UK as reported in the latest Museums Journal, Nick Merriman (see previous blogs for his interest in this area) continues to champion the deaccessioning of collections for financial purposes in certain circumstances: “The Museums Association continues to believe that ethically sound, financially motivated disposal has a role to play in the development of collections”.

What the words ‘ethically sound’ refers to is the MA’s Code of Ethics which states that disposal for financial gain is unethical where an artwork or item is part of the collecting area of the collecting institution. Thus for instance Bolton Council has withdrawn a painting it was due to deaccession and auction by a local artist, Alfred Heaton Cooper, because it did not fall outside their stated core collecting areas, despite the fact it did not depict Bolton.

The core issue here is that deaccessioning is and must remain a part of good collecting policy. The temptation to sell valuable items to keep the show on the road in times of financial stringency is strong, but that is clearly bad policy. Where however items are clearly beyond the collecting areas of the institution and are most unlikely to be publicly displayed, and where the funds that they might realise can help other parts of the organisation, e.g. with a new storage facility, then it makes good sense.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Antarctic conservation matters

The heritage of Antarctic exploration is one of my passions. At ICS we have been deeply involved in the Antarctic Heritage Trust of New Zealand’s program conserving the some 15,000 artefacts that still remain in the four historic huts and various other structures in the NZ Antarctic Territory that survive from the Heroic Era of Exploration (1899 to 1916).

The project has had so many different facets from the process of writing conservation and implementation plans, to resolving logistics and finding conservators who are willing to spend six months in an Antarctic winter, most of it in 24 hour darkness. We are now into our sixth winter of conservators working at Scott Base conserving artefacts in the purpose built lab, and alongside that six summer seasons of conservators working out in the field at the historic huts.

The exposure that this conservation work has had has been fantastic for the profession – it has been referred to as ‘the most exciting conservation project in the world’. And that has been helped by some good publicity.

Primarily this has been through what must be one of the conservation profession’s longest running blogs hosted by the Natural History Museum in London. It is well worth trawling back through the last six years to see some real gems of postings.

More recently, last summer season Ben Fogle and a team from the BBC spent two weeks at Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans filming conservators in action, the resulting documentary being screened on prime time UK tv a couple of weeks ago. Again it is great to see conservators as the focus of the story. You can watch it here

2012 is shaping up to be a big year for Antarctic exploration aficionados. It is after all the year that Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition landed in Commonwealth Bay (January 7th), Amundsen (having reached the South Pole in December 1911) announced his success from the steps of Hobart Post Office on March 9th, and Scott, having also reached the Pole, died on the return trip about March 28th 1912. I am busily organizing a meeting of the ICOMOS International Polar Heritage Committee for March next year in Hobart, during which we intend to re-enact Amundsen’s announcement.

And finally to commemorate the centenary of Scott’s expedition the Natural History Museum, London, the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch and the Antarctic Heritage Trust have collaborated to create an international travelling exhibition that will open at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney in mid June 2011. It will include a stylised representation of Scott's expedition hut at Cape Evans as per below. Check it out here.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, May 2, 2011

Museums, mobiles and apps

I often find that the full impact of a conference, especially one so immersive as Museums and the Web 2011 , only really hits home a week or two after the event is over. So, in promising not to mention the conference again, here are my considered thoughts on where the world is in this corner of the museum sector.
  1. The museum in a mobile world was the primary focus of the conference, by which I mean that although tons of other issues were discussed, it is the potential for how mobile technology can significantly change the museum visit, whether through content delivery, visitor interaction or way finding that kept appearing as the most exciting current opportunity. And what became clear is that, just as there is no one single mobile platform (e.g. Android, iOS ( iPhone operating system) etc, there is no uniform way of using mobiles in museums. Indeed as David Bearman, the conference convenor, said the landscape reminds him of the late 1990s when museums were debating whether or not they should have a web site. Now they are debating whether or not they should have an app, and what it should look like. It is going to take some time until an element of uniformity arrives with a ‘standard’ app platform.
  2. Apps are not going to be the latest iteration of audio guides. Not only is the business model going to be different, with museums choosing to do part of the app development in-house, depending on internal capacity and strengths (typically audio guides have been put together by external companies (e.g. Acoustiguide or Antenna) who have then leased the equipment to the museum), but the use to which they will be put is quite different. Using audio guides is essentially a passive activity. Apps are active encouraging interaction both with other users, but also the museum and in some cases the exhibit itself.
  3. This new world of mobiles is going to need some significant organisational change within the museum profession. Mobile use is about a collaborative rather than authoritative approach to learning from exhibits. This is a challenge to the traditional view for museum staff. Social media programs are currently being run by the marketing/PR part of the museums, but it must draw in staff working in cross disciplinary groups from across the whole museum, with more face to face conversations for its opportunities to be maximised.
For a great example of what the world of the app in museums looks like, from internal cross disciplinary involvement to external marketing go no further than the Explorer system at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director