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