Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Changing environmental guidelines for museums

I have been chairing a taskforce for AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) for the last eighteen months on changing guidelines for environmental conditions for museums. We’ve collated a pile of material on what is happening around Australia and in the world in this most interesting space. It is driven by a combination of rising energy costs (as much as 70% of museum expenses post salaries are spent on energy, most of it running climate control systems), reducing budgets and the need to be and to be seen to be environmentally conscious.

The opportunity for using these circumstances to relax the tight parameters that are currently stipulated for the display and storage of museum collections (typically 20 degrees C +/- 10% and 50% RH +/- 10% ) is being welcomed by some conservators and regarded with suspicion by others. The reality is that only a few types of materials really require these tight levels and we have ended up in a position where they are stipulated as a blanket condition for all collections. But as for coming up with new guidelines around potentially more relaxed conditions, in reality we can only move in Australia as fast as the rest of the world. As a net borrower of artworks and objects we must provide exhibition space that accords with international environmental parameters.

So it is very good news to have at last the UK’s latest thinking on these issues just published in the British Standards Institute’s PAS ( Publically Available Specification) 198 – Specification for environmental conditions for cultural collections.

Whilst these new specifications do not lay down the final rules on the new parameters (that will come in the British Standard) what they are saying is:

  • Collecting institutions need to acknowledge that attempts to establish a universal safe zone has resulted in unsafe conditions for atypical collections and unsustainable use of energy
  • The new parameters will not be narrowly prescriptive and will allow an acceptable degree of deterioration/loss
  • They will take into account the use of energy to maintain the collection environment
  • They will require decision making on environmental parameters to consider energy usage data, expected usage of collection items, and include a risk assessment
  • They will include as integral to the package of environmental parameters acceptable levels of light and pollution
We are busy writing the first draft of the AICCM Guidelines right now and hope to have them widely promulgated by the end of the year. We have even submitted them to the MAGNA Sustainability Project Awards at this year’s Museums Australia conference in Perth.

I will keep you posted as to when these are publically available.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Google matters

A quick note on the fast moving world of Google and particularly how it impacts on the museum world.

I blogged on Google Art in March and April - a new initiative that involves providing 'street views' of the contents of 17 of the great art galleries around the world, and high resolution images of selected artworks.

Google Goggles is a visual recognition app that has been around since 2009. It is like the music recognition app Shazam, except it does it visually rather than by audio. It has focused on two areas to date namely architecturally recognisable buildings and wine labels. The former I could understand, but why the latter had taken the fancy of the folks at Google was not entirely clear – apparently there are enough wine connoisseurs out there who want to photograph a wine label and find out whether the bottle is worth $10 or $100.

However, the application of using a visual search engine activated not by putting in key phrases but by taking a picture with your smartphone has been begging to be applied to artworks, and finally Google has announced they have teamed up with the Getty to "Goggles-enable" (don’t you love the phraseology!) their permanent collection. Read all about it in the LA Times.

How it works is that you take a picture of any of the Getty paintings during your visit and instantly access information about the painting. You can also hear commentary from artists, curators and conservators on the works of art themselves.

The Getty has been trialing ways in which they can provide more information to visitors than fits on a wall label for some years. They pioneered the so-called ‘Getty Guides’, a mp3 player format that provided an advance on the audio guide concept by including images, but it was not found to be taken up with much enthusiasm by visitors.

The bigger picture is whether we are moving to a label free world in museums, as MONA in Tasmania is pioneering (see my blog). My view is that we shall never dispense with the label but the opportunities that smartphones in particular are providing for seriously enriching access to information on what is being viewed are only going to multiply.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director