Friday, November 30, 2012

Environmental Guidelines - the Munich conference wash up

It has taken me longer than I expected to digest the Munich ' Climate for Collections' conference, not just because the content was so full on, but also because the conclusions are difficult to summarise.  What I can relay is that the proposed voting with red and green cards at the conclusion of the conference to flush out the general view of the delegates to relaxing or not relaxing environmental parameters sensibly did not go ahead. The reason for this was simply that  the issue is clearly not as simple as this.

So where do I read the current situation sits?  Somewhere along the following lines:

-  existing  environmental parameters for collections are based on a blanket approach, and are unnecessarily tight for all but the most vulnerable of artworks, e.g. panel paintings, and ignore the issue of 'proofed' RH, that is the extremes to which the artwork has already been exposed in its lifetime

-  major museums and galleries worldwide are recognising this and implementing relaxed parameters, e.g. The Tate, the Smithsonian and the V&A.

-  however a significant proportion of the conservation profession are not convinced that the risks in relaxing these parameters can be safely managed, a position best articulated by the National Gallery

- we are not going to achieve consensus amongst conservators internationally on this and therefore there will be no new blanket environmental standards ( coming to this realisation was my big take away from Munich)

But what we cannot do is to throw up our hands and say this is all too hard, not least because, in my view, folks, this is about the planet ( witness the news from the Climate Conference in Doha this week).  There are a number of ways forward:

Firstly,  in my experience air conditioning engineers and building managers are often not achieving the maximum efficiencies from HVAC systems, that is they know how they are built and operated, but are not focused on achieving optimum efficiency . To do so requires dialogue with the museum' s conservators, which is invariably not taking place.

Secondly, this dialogue can effectively achieve substantial energy savings without major capital investment and without sacrificing preservation quality, whilst safely managing any associated risks to collections. I have seen it in action.

Thirdly, this requires a holistic understanding of the collections, HVAC systems and capabilities, buildings, outdoor climate and infrastructure/capabilities of the staff .  What is clear is that every situation is unique.

This is way too important an issue to pull up the 'too hard' white flag on. You will hear more from me on this shortly.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Environmental Guidelines for Museums - the latest

'Climate for Collections' is the title of the conference I am currently attending at the Doerner Institute in Munich. Part of the 4 million Euro Climate for Culture, the conference is seeking to establish consensus amongst conservators about the levels to which environmental standards in museums and galleries can be relaxed. I have previously blogged about this vexed question. 

And boy is it vexed! I had imagined (I now realise somewhat naively) that I was coming to a meeting where we would be in general agreement on the sustainability and economic need to relax these standards within carefully defined guidelines.  

What I have walked into is a major reaction to the Bizot Group (of museum directors) push to make these relaxed standards become a reality. The German conservators in particular are fiercely resistant to any relaxation and see the Bizot push as being all about making loans more easily available between themselves. So the National Gallery's view on this (see previous blog) is more widely supported than I had realised.

All will come to a head on Friday when we vote individually where we stand with coloured cards ( red against the Bizot push, yellow for undecided and green for support).

My personal view is this is missing the point.  Let's ignore what the Bizot motives might be. As conservators we are in a prime position to lead in this discussion which more and more is being driven by skyrocketing energy prices more than the morality of sustainability. We understand the ability of materials to cope or not to indoor climate fluctuations, the various damage functions, and the opportunities that exist to play with HVAC systems.

More very soon after Friday's vote!  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Abu Dhabi museum story

No visit to Abu Dhabi, where I have just been working for three days, can avoid the extraordinary museum building program taking place on Saadiyat Island just a bridge away from the CBD. It's a surreal confluence of 'name' architects competing with each other to produce the masterpiece of the area. Norman Foster is at work on the new Zayed National Museum

 Frank Gehry on the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim

Jean Nouvel on the Louvre Abu Dhabi

and Zara Hadid on the Maritime Museum and Performing Arts Centre.

What the estimated $27 billion project will look like is currently explained in an impressive 15,500 sq m visitor centre known as the Manarat Al Saadiyat, which certainly helps as, despite an original opening date of 2014, at present there is little evidence of anything happening.

At one level it is going to be a great place to visit to see some extraordinary buildings, the Nouvel dome for the Louvre Abu Dhabi  being to my mind the future star of the show with its geometric lace patterns in the roof resulting in a rain of light. 

What is much less clear is what is going to go inside each of them, though presumably the Guggenheim and the Louvre will both draw extensively on their respective parental bodies. It is also unclear who will go to them apart from tourists as there is no local tradition of museum going. Cleverly a number of temporary exhibitions mounted with the British Museum are being run in the Manarat Al Saadiyat to get them into the swing of it.

And amazingly just across the Persian Gulf in Doha the Qataris are building their own version, with the Qatar National Museum designed by, you guessed it, Jean Nouvel.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Vienna and Conferences

Spending eight days conferencing in Vienna, as I did earlier this month, sounds like a tough gig, but heh someone's got to attend these conferences or they won't happen. In this instance it was the bi annual Congress of IIC, the International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic works. I'm a bit of a groupie for these get togethers of conservators from around the world, this being my fourth one. I am also Vice President of IIC.
So what did I bring back from a week in this World Heritage city? As always at IIC conferences, a realisation of the wealth of conservation work which is going on in highly specialised areas all over the world. Conservation papers ranged from treatment of tin relief on thirteenth century Cypriot wall paintings to decorative paint on seventeenth century Flemish harpsichords, wall paintings in Tutankhamen's tomb, crystal torcheres in Hawaii and Le Corbusier kitchens.

Stand out moments for me were Kasi Albert from Artlab Australia tackling the difficult issue of what to do about rivets used in old ceramic repairs, Heather Tetley on the challenges of in situ historic carpet repairs in an aptly tilted paper "Underfoot and Overlooked", and Sarah Staniforth from the National Trust on 'Use it or Lose it", discussing the need to make the National Trust collections accessible, and accept that some damage may occur in the process.

Along the way I could not resist slipping out to explore the extraordinary diversity of Vienna's cultural collections from the fabulous KunstHistoriche Museum to the Albertina. Stand outs for me were:

- the collections of the Natural History Museum, which pays limited lipservice to modern interpretative methodologies and lives by the depth of its collections presented with minimal interpretation in beautiful mahogany showcases in stunningly decorated rooms

- the new Klimt exhibition at the Belvedere which employs a series of apt dual language quotes in English and German written high on the wall of each gallery thus avoiding a cram of people trying to catch up with storyboards

The next IIC Congress will be in Hong Kong in September 2014. As in the same month ICOM's Committee for Conservation will be meeting in Melbourne, it promises to be a big year for conservation conferences.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ecce Homo and Copyright

Rarely does the role of the amateur restorer achieve such notoriety as that of octogenarian Cecilia Gimenez.  In fact I cannot remember a so called ' conservation story ' ( well it involves conservators or likely will do somewhere along the line) making headlines to this extent in the mainstream press.

The basic facts are that Cecilia decided to retouch the 'Ecce Homo" ( Behold the Man) fresco in the Spanish church of Santurario de Misericordia near Zaragoza, by the late nineteenth century Spanish artist Elias Garcia Martinez, as she was concerned by its deterioration.

Unfortunately her efforts left Jesus looking like a very hairy monkey in an ill fitting tunic, hence its new name, 'Ecce Mono' (Behold the Monkey).

The result of all this coverage is that 1,000 people a day are turning up at said church to view the simian look alike, the crowds being such that the entrepreneurial church elders have decided to charge 1 Euro per visitor.

And this is where it gets interesting!  Where does the money go?  Cecilia is claiming copyright as people are coming to see her work, and wants the money to go to charity to support muscular dystrophy from which her son suffers.  The sixteen grandchildren of the artist have different ideas, on the basis they own the copyright.

I'm not sure what the Spanish law will decide, but in Australia I have recently discovered that conservators can in certain instances actually claim copyright over the works they have treated. Although this has yet to be tested in court , it is clear from existing copyright judgements that where the conservator is bringing to the  treatment of the artwork their own artistic ability in terms of independent skill and judgement, then copyright belongs to them.
And it is a principle of copyright law that once the copyright is deemed to be vested in the part of the artwork that has been treated, then the whole work and not just the treated parts become subject to copyright.   Clearly for most of our work as conservators this is not relevant. But when we undertake a major inpainting project or the complete repatination of a sculpture, then it would appear that copyright belongs to the conservator.

Given that Ecce Homo falls into this bracket, it would appear therefore that copyright does belong to Cecilia ( along with the a share of the income from visitors, mousepads, t-shirts, puzzles, travel mugs, mobile phone cases etc etc).

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

QR codes and visual recognition

It is an indicator of the speed of technological development that six months on from my previous blog on QR codes there is substantial movement in both the specific QR space and the broader alternatives such as image recognition.

A number of great links around. First up, Nancy Proctor is fast cementing her position as the leading commentator on this space from her role as Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives at the Smithsonian. She is a key player at Museums and the Web (which she co-organises), and the US MuseumComputer Network and was the key note speaker this year at MuseumNext conference which draws all the European museum bods in this area. That key note is well worth downloading here, focusing on the need for museum technologists to continue to focus on the outputs of new technologies rather than the technologies themselves.  Some technologies will succeed and some will fail, and the biggest issue for museums will be how to choose where to invest hard won funds. Check out also an enlightening interview with Nancy at Nancy Proctor on Mobile in Museums (and Revolutionary Change).

On which note it is clear that QR codes are here to stay more firmly than they were a year ago. Follow the chat on the Linked In Museums In TheDigital Age Group Members to see how many museums world wide are using them. My view is that despite the ugliness of QR codes they are increasing recognised as an entry point for object information and are easy to read, whereas image recognition technologies, despite being less in your face (with the consequential  disadvantage of course that you do not know they are present) are still struggling with recognising anything apart from complex two dimensional artworks, i.e. they do not easily recognise simple images, photographs and many three dimensional objects.

Where this current round of technologies continues to track towards is a confluence of the benefits of the various solutions which ultimately will provide:

  • access to information via visitor's own device ( or via a device that can be lent by the museum)
  • a level of information that transcends the current offering of wall labels, video screens and audio tours. It will be able to be personalised, and allow the visitor to learn what they like at the level of information they choose
  • active engagement via social media allowing the visitor to engage with other visitors and share comments
  • dynamic wayfinding that provides an active guided navigation experience around the museum and also draws attention to objects the visitor may be interested in on the route followed
  • location awareness allowing the visitors own device to work out what the visitor is looking at without prompting or actively locating

Probably the nearest example of this can be seen in the forthcoming Gallery 1 project at the Cleveland Museum of Art - details of the paper to be given on it at the November annual MCN Conference are at the MCN site.  But I am sure I shall be blogging in less than six months with a further technology update.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Good times in WA and less good times in the UK

The announcement in May of the redevelopment of the WA Museum is good news, but has been a long term in coming. It had a false start along the way in 2008, when under Dawn Casey's directorship the Museum's relocation to the old Swan River powerstation was announced. Although the monies were about the same for the latter project, about half was going to be eaten up by site remediation. And it seems to be generally agreed in Perth that the powerstation was not a good site being off the tourist track and difficult to access.
So the new plan sounds a whole lot better way to spend the not inconsiderable sum of $428.3 million.  
What the good citizens of WA will get for their money is 23,000 m2 of museum, including various refurbished heritage buildings with 8,500 m2 of public spaces, themed around Being Western Australian, Discovering Western Australia and Exploring Our World, and 1,000m2 of temporary exhibition space.

As Australian museum projects go it dwarfs anything we have seen of late, which admittedly has tended to be new wings ($50m at MCA in 2012,  $45m at the Australian Museum in in 2008), is almost 4 times the cost of GOMA (2006) in Brisbane, is twice the cost of the National Museum (2001) and significantly more than the Melbourne Museum (1998). The challenge will be for the director, Alec Coles, to hold onto the funds over various budget cycles. There is no doubt that Coles is a smart political operator and much of the credit for getting this over the line is due to him, but Bill Bleathman, the able director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, saw the promise of a similar sum whittled away to a paltry $30m for their current redevelopment.

From the largesse of WA’s booming mining driven economy to the other end of the spectrum, and it's interesting to see what happens to museums in an economy that is really being hit hard, namely the UK. The raw facts are that 42% of UK Museums Association member institutions have cut staff in the past year according to their most recent survey, and a quarter have had to close all or part of their sites. Bear in mind that this is what happened in 2011, after at least 2 years prior to that of a similar picture. But the good news is that out of adversity in true British fashion there are good things evolving (and it's not just the lift to the spirits that the Olympics is bringing).  The survey is peppered with comments such as " Challenge does foster resourcefulness", 'There is a more pragmatic approach to service delivery", ' the sector will emerge more radical and responsive to the social needs of the public', and 'being more entrepreneurial has to be good for museums and galleries in the long term'.  Add to this increasing visitor numbers, and 36% of members saying the quality of their services will increase over the coming year ( up from 13% the previous) and it all sounds positively rosy. To top it all, UK public support for the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece is on the decline, because there is real concern that Greece's dire financial state would mean they will be unable to properly care for them. Not sure that view is going to hold water in the long term, but for now it will keep the British Museum’s 6 million annual visitors (and rising) happy. 

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Environmental Guidelines for museums - an update

I helped convene a seminar at the Australian Museum ten days ago entitled “ Sustainable Buildings for Sustainable Collections – we talk the talk, but can we walk the walk? The impetus for the event came from Morten Rhyl –Svendsen being in Sydney. Morten is from the Danish National Museum, an organisation which has led the way over the last decade in researching and more importantly publishing findings on the optimum method to store museum collections when combining the needs of the objects with energy saving opportunities. Tim Padfield established the Research Centre in the 1970s and Morten is part of the next generation of researchers who are taking the lead in this important area, so it was great to hear where that research is heading.

This is now about not just relaxed temperature and relative humidity parameters, but also about the number of air exchanges, the amount of recycled as against fresh air and isoperms - the rate of decay of objects as determined by the temperature and RH in which they are stored, e.g an object that will last 100 years at an average storage temperature of 22C will last 1000 years at a  temp of 15C. Check out a rather complicated explanation of isoperms here.  

Morten’s keynote was followed by a series of short talks on the science of sustainable environments for museums and the interaction that is required between conservators (determining what climate variance objects can cope with), building managers (advising what climate controls the museum's HVAC system can deliver), and visitor services staff (stating what climate variances visitors will put up with).  

What became clear to me is that the conservator/building manager relationship, where it works well, can deliver some real wins in this area. But the big decisions on the carbon footprint of the institution have to be made at executive level, and the good news is that whilst the debate to date may only have had passing resonance with this level, now that energy cost increases are really beginning to bite, they are sitting up and being prepared to listen. The work that the State Library of Victoria has been undertaking quietly but progressively in very substantially reducing the reliance on HVAC systems to maintain an appropriate environment for the Library's book storage areas has finally gained the attention of the Library's Governing Council.

However the question that I continue to be asked is when are the new relaxed parameters for temperature and RH going to be released. It's a fair call as the AICCM Task force for Guidelines for Museums and Galleries, which I chair, is long overdue in delivering these. As I pointed out in a previous blog this is partly due to the position the National Gallery in the UK is taking by if anything hardening their position. But the reality as I always now spell out is that we have now moved beyond dictating prescriptive blanket conditions and into an era of making evidence-based decisions on what is right for a collection or museum. This means that we have got to understand the particular vulnerabilities and risks of our collections  and the environmental performance capabilities of our buildings and HVAC plant.

That's a daunting task if you are a small regional museum or gallery, but the good news is that there is an increasing amount of literature available to guide you through the process, and the outcome will mean you have a much more in-depth knowledge of the physical state of your collections and the capabilities of your buildings.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mobiles and museums - the next stage

The UK Museums Journal latest edition devotes its Museum Practice section to exploring mobile phone usage in museumsThis comes off the back of a Fusion MA Mobile Survey which sought to assess how cultural organisations in the UK and US are using mobile technology to:
  • extend audience research
  • increase visitor engagement and participation
  • provide potential new revenue channels

The report is a vital litmus test to my mind of where museum thinking is currently at or going to be shortly on the use of mobiles. My takeaways are:

  • mobile usage in museums is going to expand commensurately with the wider take up of smartphones (90% penetration by 2015 being talked about)
  • museums are managing many of their mobile programmes in house, i.e. they are being very hands-on
  • that said only 5% of UK museums surveyed had a developed mobile technology strategy, i.e. nobody quite knows what they are doing
  • QR codes already top the list of mobile features and are set to expand as fast as apps
  • revenue opportunities through social media or by allowing purchase of online merchandise are very limited.

In summary the report reflects a very fluid situation at present with everyone feeling their way, but one where the role mobiles play in visitor access is only going to get greater and that at speed. From the feedback I get, the most sought after feature is going to be way finding, the bug bear of many a great US and European museum, i.e. visitors get lost or don't explore the museum fully through fear of getting lost. Analytical capacity of smartphones is a nice-to-have but not a driving force.

So what comes out of the Museums Journal articles?

On apps versus mobile friendly sites, each have their benefits, with apps having the advantage of operating independently without an internet connection, but mobile sites are generally much cheaper to develop as they can draw on the website framework, and they don't need Apple store approval or cross platform (Android, iOS etc) development.

On the role of audio guides, it is clear that  buying and maintaining devices is a thing of the past, and that visitors are going to use their own phones or tablets.

On strategically approaching mobile projects, key themes are keeping it simple, involving cross departmental teams (especially curatorial, education, visitor services and digital media) and developing a marketing strategy to encourage visitor use.

This is going to be a subject that is going to take up an increasing amount of museum magazine column inches.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The real via the virtual – Google Art expands

When I was at Museums and the Web 2012 last month, a number of museum people had come direct from the launch of the second round of the Google Art Project in Paris. Google Art, to remind you, was launched in early 2011 with 17 museums participating. At Museums and the Web last year there had been a somewhat hostile reception to the concept, alleviated by the participating museums all saying it had been the best thing for them in terms of driving viewers to their web site and thence through their doors to see the real thing - see my previous blogs on the issue.
Such has been the success of Google Art that a number of museums were feeling a bit miffed that their directors had turned down the initial overtures from Google on the grounds it might cheapen their offering. Now Round Two with 134 new museums on line has hit the web, in great secrecy as all participants, as with Round One, were under incredibly onerous contracts not to reveal they were in cahoots with Google. And it appears there will be more to come, but now with the ability for museums to self nominate for inclusion.

With a total of 30,000 artworks on line, almost all the big hitters are part of the project including a number of Australian museums (AGNSW, NGV and the National Gallery of Australia). Interestingly the offering has also expanded into three dimensional collections, including those of Museum Victoria. I even see there are a couple of the more quirky small collections that I have been involved in from around the world including the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul and the Ayala Museum in Manila. And the good news is there is more to come.

With such a richer bank of information now available, the ability to cross search is much more rewarding. What I particularly like is the User Galleries, where individuals can aggregate and share artworks that appeal to them into their own collection. Check out particularly Just Something in my Gut and Mick’s Pics.

Which leads me to an interesting article that appeared in The Guardian ten days ago reporting on a Guardian Culture Professionals Network online chat on ‘What’s next for Museums? In it Jim Richardson, founder of MuseumNext, the European equivalent to Museums and the Web, which took place last week in Barcelona, painted a picture of a ‘hyper personalised museum of the future where you can learn what you like as you browse the galleries, understand the level of information you’d like about each piece and then tailor that for you. I also think the museum experience is becoming increasingly collaborative. Museums are becoming more comfortable with letting audiences have a say.”

All this activity bodes well for an ever expanding opportunity for access to collections, whether real or virtual, with the two now increasingly inseparable.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, April 20, 2012

Labels or no labels

Should galleries allow the art to speak for itself or should they provide information and interpretation for visitors? asks an article in the December 2011 UK Museums Journal.  It’s a question that is as old as art itself, with two components.The first is how much interpretive material should be provided, the dilemma described by Nicholas Serota of the Tate as that of ‘experience or interpretation’ i.e. either helping visitors experience a sense of discovery in looking at artworks or leaving them to find themselves ’standing on the conveyor belt of history ‘ (great quote!). 

The second component is how that interpretation is physically imparted. The common label is under some threat at present, witness the label-less MONA (see blog) and experiments that National Gallery in London has been trialing (having no labels but a pocket size guide book for visitors), and the Getty in LA (exhibiting a room full of Rembrandts with no labels for 4 weeks before they put the labels up). Whilst the National Gallery speaks favourably of visitor reaction to their trial, the Royal Academy note that  visitors struggle without them. Kathleen Soriano of the RA noticed that ‘ the absence of labels can make audiences quite nervous. They tend to walk past more quickly’. 

And of course this is also where technology is making serious inroads in offering new ways of ‘seeing ‘ art.  Whilst the Getty substituted no other form of interpretive material for their label-less Rembrandts, MONA provides a highly sophisticated iPod touch info package. 

In between there are lots of new techniques that can be tried. I visited the National Gallery of Denmark over Christmas where in their splendid newly refurbished European galleries, they have included as well as labels;
a)         a large touch table in the first gallery where the highlights of each successive gallery are able to examined in  detail as a taste of what is to come
b)         each gallery has  a small ‘break out’ area, literally an open topped cubicle, where one painting only is hung with a seat to contemplate and earphones for audio information
c)         a series of desks with board games for kids down the middle of one of their major galleries, with the games answers derived from the surrounding paintings.

Museums and the Web last year concentrated on the critical role the mobile was beginning to play in museums .  Much of course has happened since, and it seems amazing that we were discussing then how some art museums still did not permit mobiles. Smartphone use has now passed 50% of all mobile use and web access via mobile overtaken desktop access.
So a number of papers at Museums and the Web 2012 last week looked at strategies to deal with this fast changing world.  Messages I picked up from them included:

  • Know your audience and environment – mobile delivery of content via smartphones or multi media devices is not always applicable. Some visitors choose to come as a fun family outing, and accessing content whetrhe visual or audio through mobiles  can provide solitary experiences that do not enhance this.
  • Awareness of apps that can be downloaded onto your own smartphone is still low (people imagine that the museum’s equipment has to be used as at MONA) or visitors can be wary of app use (they presume it will cost them as part of their plan or can expose them to viruses).
  • Be aware that no one has quite sorted out the business model, i.e. whether apps or providing iPod touchs should be free
Check out particularly relevant papers at:
But returning to the label debate, we will never completely ditch them, but I continue to believe that hand held devices as the principal interpretive tool are going to be the way of the immediate future.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, April 16, 2012

Measuring online activity

Much has been written over the last few years about how to measure online metrics, with Seb Chan’s Fresh and New blog and dynamic presentations helping to set the benchmark. But not a lot has been written about what those metrics tell us. So it was timely for the UK’s ‘Let’s Get Real’ report to be presented at Museums and the Web 2012 last Friday. Undertaken through 2011 the project sought to benchmark common online activity amongst 17 UK cultural venues, including Tate, the British Museum, and the National Museums of Scotland and Wales, to generate practical outcomes to inform the cultural sector as a whole and improve working practices.

The key ‘take aways’ I got from it were:

• Don’t let’s kid ourselves about how much online activity the cultural sector generates - the combined traffic to the partner organizations (which included most of the UK majors) was 0.04% of total UK web traffic in June 2011, equivalent to just one site that provided info for expectant parents

• Understand how to use Google Analytics and undertake a ‘health check’ to ensure consistency of results. This should include segmenting traffic between internal and external visits ( the British Library for instance generates 7% of its traffic internally – staff, and visitors to the public reading rooms), and understanding how Google Analytics calculates time on site.

• Be clear what you are trying to do online and who the content is for

• Recognise the limits as well as the value of social media

• Engage with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – a process that is fundamental to commercial web sites but under used by cultural organizations

• Ensure digital activities are not separate to physical ones and linked with your overall strategy

• Ensure your website is mobile friendly given mobile access to the web has now overtaken desktop/laptop access

Check out the whole report on line - it makes for interesting reading.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, April 13, 2012

Museums and the Web 2012

I predicted a couple of weeks ago that the underlying theme of Museums and the Web 2012 being held here in sunny downtown San Diego would be digital leadership.

Well after the first day of proceedings I can report that this issue is certainly on the agenda, but I think the bigger issue is actually going to be about whether this conference (now in its 17th year) should be renamed Museums and the Digital World.

Few of the papers mention the web, and papers this morning by Bruce Wyman and Rob Stein pushed hard the concept of the necessity for museums to have a digital strategy. No longer is this strategy just about how a web site is used to benefit the museum but it is about the integration of everything digital from digitisation of collections to building apps and the onsite and offsite presence of the museum.

Bruce sees that everyone in the museum should be aware of the need to produce digital content with three roles critical to this:
  1. The content creators - they need to be aware that all content will be picked apart, mashed and reused in ways they never envisaged. Alongside this, accurate metadata, as the conduit to much content, is more important than ever before.
  2. The constructors (i.e. those that build the content) - be aware that consumers want to interact with content on many different platforms, and find it transportable easily between them. Interestingly Bruce straw-polled the conference delegates to show that the vast majority have iPhones not Androids, reflecting his view that iPhone users are much more engaged with content than Android users (who he claims tend to buy their phones largely as clever phones rather than a window to the world). The usage flies in the face of the stats published in USA Today this morning which showed that 2011 global smartphone sales were powered by 49% Android operating systems as against 19% iOS.
  3. The consumers - be aware that data is everywhere for consumers, and the museum data needs to stand out and where possible link back to the museum, as it will invariably not be accessed via the museum's website.
Rob summed it up well I thought by saying that we need first and foremost to be museum experts not technology experts if we are going to convince and engage with our consumers. More soon.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Museums and the Web 2012 and digital leadership

It’s that time of year when Museums and the Web fans start to get excited as MW 2012 (April 11th -14th in San Diego) looms into our immediate consciousness. This will be my third (I was at MW2009 in Indianapolis and MW2011 in Philadelphia).

Each MW has an informal theme which either becomes apparent in the blogosphere before the conference or during the conference itself. 2011 was clearly about mobile platforms. And if there is one that I can spot for 2012 it is going to be around digital leadership.

Rob Stein’s paper is already being widely commented upon. Rob is a key person in this debate and we are all watching to see what he does in his new role in Dallas as the Dallas Museum of Art’s Deputy Director, where he has been head hunted by Maxwell Anderson. Max is the Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, and has enticed Rob from Indianapolis Museum of Art where he is the Deputy Director for Research, Technology, and Engagement. Max was formally the Director there. It was in that role that Max gave the opening address at MW 2009 in Indianapolis, an eye opening moment for me as there was a live twitter feed being displayed behind him to which everyone was glued at the expense of his presentation. The Indianapolis Museum of Art has been pioneering the role of museums in the digital age, and presumably Dallas will now lead the next stage of the journey.

But all this is particularly relevant to Rob’s paper which essential posits a new view of the type of leaders that museums need. This has prompted a wave of comment, from The Art Newspaper to Susan Cairns writing in the Museums Association UK comment page (‘Can a technologist get ahead in museums?’) saying “If we have museum directors who understand museums but do not understand (and commit firmly to) the altered technological landscape, how can museums possibly adapt to changing expectations”

I would suggest that the problem is not unique to the GLAM sector – witness the latest survey of PR agency Eurocom Worldwide which showed that 57% of CEOs had no idea how to quantify the effect of their social media presence (and more worryingly that 1 in 5 job applicants were failing to get hired because of content in their social media profile! - cited in BRW March 22nd 2012 edition).

But I would also suggest it is not the problem that Susan thinks. Maxwell Anderson has shown convincingly that you do not need to have encountered computers after formal schooling still to be able to get what current technology can do for the GLAM sector.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, March 19, 2012

Polar high-jinks

I spent four days in Hobart earlier this month hosting the 2012 conference of the ICOMOS International Polar Heritage Committee (IPHC) of which I have just become President. I say it as one how probably shouldn’t, but it was a great event with 50 polar heritage experts from all over the world present. Lots of highlights helped by the wealth of local polar links – check out Hobart’s Polar Pathways for a great self guided tour around the city.

Stand outs were:

1. A reception kindly hosted by the Governor of Tasmania, Peter Underwood, a role with many polar links. Sir John Franklin held this role from 1837 to 1843 – disappearing in the late 1840s in the Canadian Arctic whilst trying to reach the North Pole. Ettie Scott, Capt Scott’s sister was married to Sir William Ellison-Macartney, who was Governor from 1913-1917 before moving to the same role in WA. Scott’s mother and unmarried sister both lived at Government House, Hobart at the time, perhaps helping the British Government fulfil Scott’s dying plea ‘For God’s sake look after my people’.

2. Michael Morrison’s paper 'The Whaling Station of South Georgia' on the whaling stations of South Georgia. These five sites, Leith, Stromness, Prince Olav, Husvik and Grytviken between them processed an astonishing 175,000 whales in their life time before closing in the 1930s. They now represent a massive environmental and heritage conservation challenge. Check out the images (including the whales) at the conference proceedings on the IPHC site under here, but also look at this extraordinary picture of the process (apologies to the squeamish):

3. The main reason for holding the conference in Hobart at this time, namely the centenary of Amundsen announcing he had reached the South Pole from the steps of Hobart GPO on March 9th 1912. This was re-enacted complete with huskies, sledge and a look-alike Amundsen amidst general jollity as follows:

Meanwhile of course a hundred years ago Scott and his three companions were still fighting a losing battle against the odds on the Ross Sea ice barrier trying to get back to safety. I have been reading Scott’s diaries on a daily basis for the past year, which has given me an extraordinary sense of how their journey unfolded. It was 100 years ago today that Titus Oates walked out of the tent with the immortal words” I am just going outside and may be some time’

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, March 2, 2012

Viewing art

"Art museums have become pointless: they should learn from Christianity" states Alain de Botton in a recent ABC religion and ethics program.

His point is that:
  1. art museums have become our new churches
  2. art has become revered and in doing so displaced a role that religion used to serve
  3. but neither the art nor art museums are providing church functions as places of consolation, meaning and redemption
He therefore suggests that art museum curators should set aside the ‘high’ interpretation of art accessible only to the elite, and help the visitor to access works of art in a way that they can help us get through life.

He sees Christian art as being aimed at teaching us how to live, so that pictures of Mary at the foot of the Cross teach us tenderness and courage and images of the Last Supper train us not to be a coward or a liar. As an avowed atheist de Botton, in my book, is missing the point of Christian paintings (namely that they are all about the message of Christ), but his point is an interesting one, namely can secular art teach us about life values.

First up we need to know how to look at art, and I refer you to a previous blog of mine on this issue citing Kenneth Clark’s methodology.

Setting aside the truism that art speaks to everyone in a different way and that no one reaction to an artwork is more valid than another, how then can art be used?

I am in the midst of a review of university museum collections and it’s fascinating to look at how some of them are being used beyond just a primary source of knowledge. University College London has just started an object based learning course using the UCL’s unique collections as a primary focus and encouraging a process of interrogation, research, documentation and presentation to develop research and practical skills.

Both Harvard and Oxford expose their medical undergraduates to art as a means of enhancing their powers of observation.

But perhaps Barbra Streisand in a moment of considerable clarity should have the last word: “Art does not exist only to entertain, but also to challenge one to think, to provoke, even to disturb, in a constant search for truth.”

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, February 13, 2012

Archaeology and climate change

IIC (the International Institute for Conservation) has been pushing the line that climate change will effect collections just as much as buildings for some time. I helped organize their first dialogue on the issue at the IIC Congress in London in 2008 (Climate Change and Museum Collections), most memorable to me as the occasion when Nicholas Serota of the Tate pronounced that he expected visitors to have to wear overcoats in the Tate in winter as they no longer would be keeping the Tate toasty just for visitor comfort.

Three weeks ago IIC ran another dialogue in conjunction with University College, London looking at the issue of preservation of archaeology in a time of climate change. It was facilitated by Dr May Cassar, Professor of Sustainable Heritage at UCL, and a guru in this area. The two dialogue respondents were Andrew Curry, an archaeological journalist and Wouter Gheyle, a practising archaeologist.

A range of sites were discussed by the two of them where rising seal levels and changing weather patterns are threatening insitu archaeology, including:
You get the picture, and this is of course incremental, whereas Hurricane Katrina in 2005 washed away an estimated 1000 archaeological sites in one fell swoop.

Following the presentations by Curry and Gheyle there was an opportunity for open dialogue, and there was the inevitable question as to whether global warming is anything new in the history of the planet. As Curry responded there have always been natural weather changes that happen over thousands of years. But what we are seeing now is much faster and more destructive, and therein lies the problem. Weather patterns are becoming more extreme and unfamiliar. Some moderately hot places are becoming deserts and others where moderate rain used to fall, are now experiencing torrential rain and flooding.

As Australia experiences a wet, wet summer with extensive and damaging flooding, the climate change deniers are claiming they are right and there is no global warming evident in this part of the world. In reality it is precisely because the planet is warming up that we are getting these extreme weather patterns.

It’s an issue that is effecting us all, like it or not, and we in the conservation world need to start prioritising what we can save.

Check out the dialogue online.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mobile connectivity and museums

I sat through a highly thought provoking talk last week by Craig Rispin, a self acknowledged ‘futurist' (apparently there are 25,000 of them around the world).

Along with a pile of interesting insights into where current research is going (did you know that the Chinese have developed a way to store data in E.Coli bacteria, and that one gram could store as much as 90gb of data?), I was particularly struck by the research data he has sourced from Morgan Stanley on the inexorable and stunning rise of mobile internet use take up.

I have blogged before on how mobile access of the internet is already greater than any other form of internet access. This research shows graphically what this looks like.

The first image shows the 15 million units of iPads (blue) shipped in the first three quarters after launch, compared to the 3 million iPhones (orange) and the 100,000 iPods (green) .

But what have all these iPads been used for?

One answer is connecting to the internet. The following graph shows in green the take up by subscribers (120 million of them) of mobile internet via iPad, iPhone and iTouch after 13 quarters of launch of the service, compared to the equivalent time after the launch of AOL internet in red or Netscape internet in blue.

But look at the same graph after 14 quarters (380 million subscribers)

And 15 quarters (468 million subscribers)


It is the relative take up of the technology which is so stunning, and which is going to have such an impact on how museums harness this new level of connectivity. Of particular interest to me is the opportunities that iPads are going to provide in terms of allowing shared access to information between visitors, particularly families – something a smartphone struggles with due to the small size of the screen. But more of that later.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, January 27, 2012

QR Codes – the discussion continues

I have blogged a few times recently on trails being undertaken with QR codes, see QR codes, RFIDs and Goggles,  Providing Rich Media Content, including a view that they are of limited value New Technologies in the Museum Sector.

That said it is early days, and there are a host of trials going on to help get at broader picture. Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum, who is always worth reading as the Brooklyn has been a innovator from way back, writes in the Brooklyn Museum blog  that their latest findings from QR take-up has been indecisive, and one could read disappointing. All visitors are provided with entrance tags on the back of which is a QR code and an explanation of what visitors might find by scanning QR codes on objects into the Museum. Only 1.77% of visitors responded by scanning the code, and of those that did scan the code only an average 3.37% of those users (.059% of total visitors) scanned the codes that were placed on objects ( admittedly only placed on 30 objects out of the 3000 on display).

So my take on QR codes at present is as follows:

On the positive side, they provide at present the fastest way to a URL and the ability to share flexible information from a smartphone, but:
  • they need to be at least 30 x 30mm
  • they should always include details about how to download a QR code reader beside them
  • they should always identify which URL they send users too
  • museums should be prepared for a slow start and gradual uptake of interest
On the negative side;
  • you need a smartphone to read them, and although the growth in such is phenomenal ( 90% take-up by 2015 predicted), a significant proportion of visitors still don’t have them and are therefore disenfranchised by this method of content delivery
  • they are a hassle to use in terms of first of all downloading the QR reader and then aligning the QR code on the phone camera, scanning the image and waiting for the upload
For my money, it is the dual technologies of visual recognition and location awareness that we should be watching most closely in terms of their capacity to deliver content. They both appear to be developing far faster than QR code technology, of which more soon.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, January 19, 2012

That ongoing de-accessioning debate

Nothing like kicking off the year with that old chestnut, unwanted objects and collections!

The Newark Museum has made the headlines in Philadelphia on the issue of having to store and insure loaned objects that they will never exhibit and would love to be rid of. The article  picks up on the fact that 40 US states have legislation in place whereby collecting institutions can take legal possession of objects (and thus decide what to do with them) if they send registered letters to the last known address of the owner and publish notices in newspapers signaling the end of the loan, and receive no response.

And that is a good lead into an article I came across in the UK Art Fund’s latest excellent magazine by Sir Mark Jones, the recently retired director of the V&A. Jones writes about the impulses that drive the collection of art and where museums fit into this. He likens museums to the modern day equivalents of cathedrals, which in the Middle Ages vied for and elaborately housed relics to attract pilgrims.

People collect, he argues, not to fulfill basic needs but chiefly to assert status, to establish rank and power. Museums then become the place where these collections are deposited both to advertise the wealth of the collector, and also to place those objects out of rivals’ reach. Museums then have to tread a fine line between making these collections available and advertising the power and wealth of those who made them.

Many such collections come with stipulations that the collection not only can never be sold but should remain on display. The latter point is clear, namely to continue to bring prestige to the collector, which obviously cannot happen when it languishes in the store.

But the former point is one that is critical to the de-accessioning debate and helps to explain the problems and anxiety that such a process creates. Collectors have made donations on the basis that by doing so they place their collection beyond the reach of other collectors. If museums start a process of de- accession and selling works of art, they no longer can provide collectors with the assurances they need on this front.

Incidentally on the same theme, Patricia Andersen, Editor of Australian Art Review, makes some good points on how collections have evolved in her Editorial for the latest Jan-Feb 2012 edition, reinforcing how many museums in the western world began by providing a public face for private collections. It is, by the way, a great edition focusing on the great regional collections in Bathurst, Bendigo, Perc Tucker, Townsville and Broken Hill.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director