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Caring for collections – welcome and keynote address

Dr Philip Jones, South Australian Museum and Louise Douglas, National Museum of Australia, 14 May 2010

LOUISE DOUGLAS: Good morning everybody. My name is Louise Douglas. I am one of the assistant directors here at the National Museum. I look after audience programs and partnerships. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the ‘disappearing’ Museum - hopefully you found it in the fog this morning. It happens about six times a year that the museum disappears, but we are actually really here.

I acknowledge we have invited you here today to meet on Indigenous land and acknowledge the owners of this land who we work very closely with.

We are delighted that about 160 of you have come today to our fourth collections symposium to discuss recent developments in the assessment, storage and conservation of collections. The organisers have brought together a wonderful group of museum and library professionals, with experience with some of the major museums in Australia, including the Powerhouse, the South Australian Museum, the National Maritime Museum and Museum Victoria. A number of speakers, not surprisingly, are from the National Museum. We hope this gives you some insights into the really interesting discussions and new work that we have been doing here at the National Museum, particularly in the context of developing a case for a new centre for our collections.

This day continues the national dialogue about collections and begins with a discussion about the important and changing relationships between conservation, curatorial and registration staff, and then recent developments in providing access to collections. After lunch we review how significance is used in collection management decisions. We end the day reflecting on what we have heard through the course of the day with - shall we call them elder statespersons of the museum and library profession. At the conclusion of today’s proceeding I believe you are all invited informally for a drink up at University House. There will be further news on that through the course of the day.

All the work for today has been done by staff in three of the museum’s teams: the Centre for Historical Research, the curatorial team, and the audience development and public programs team, particularly Peter Stanley, Guy Hansen, Ros Russell and Anne Faris. I thank these people on behalf of the Museum and on your behalf at the beginning of the day and we will do it again at the end of the day.

This is a very important matter we are talking about today. I can tell you that because I have recently been to what is called the heads of collecting institutions meeting here in Canberra. A number of collecting institutions have been over last few years arguing for and presenting very convincing cases about needing more resources into the function of caring for the collections. It’s a very tough sell. I am sure all of you who have had a similar experience will recognise the truth of what I am saying. So it’s a very important thing we are doing here today. Having said that, I would like to introduce the chair of the first session, Guy Hansen, who has been one of the organisers of today. Thank you very much. Have a great day. [applause]

GUY HANSEN: Thank you very much Louise and welcome all to Canberra. It’s great to see you here. This very first session emerges from a number of discussions I have had over the years about how interesting it is the way museums have changed over the last 30 or 40 years, and particularly the way the professional demarcations have evolved. I am thinking here particularly if you go back far enough in museum time to the time when the curator was the prime carer, administrator and interpreter of collections through to the more modern museum where there are a range of professional areas which deal with collections. I am very interested in how that structure and how that change has impacted on the way we see objects and the way we interpret them. So this first session has been designed to explore that.

We have a keynote address from Dr Philip Jones followed by a panel discussion from a group of three very experienced museum professionals - registrar, conservator and curator – so it should be a stimulating morning. Dr Jones has been curator at the South Australian Museum since 1984. He has curated 30 exhibitions dealing with Aboriginal art history and material culture, anthropological and expeditionary history and more recently the ethnography and history of Australia’s Afghan cameleers. His particular interest is the provenance of artefacts and their history, and the context of their collection underpins much of their exhibition research and writing. In 2007 he published Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers and won the 2008 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. His paper is called ‘From curation to management: reflections on museum objects’.

PHILIP JONES: Thank you very much Guy and the organisers of today’s symposium, which I am sure will reflect on all the facets of the work that we do in museums. As Guy mentioned, this shift has been profound over maybe the last 30 years but certainly the last 150 years. I have something of that perspective in that I am working on the history of the South Australian Museum which in 2012 will celebrate 150 years since its doors opened to the public on North Terrace. I am very aware of the shift that has occurred within that institution. It still is a relatively small institution in national terms but it was always small. The smaller it was, the more concentrated was the knowledge and the authority of the curatorial element within the museum.

This concentration of authority has reached a fracture point, which I think occurred maybe 15 years ago. Since then this fracturing has continued to the degree where I think myself there is quietly a bit of a crisis going on - not just in my museum but in museums more generally. I see it in Europe and in Britain. I don’t know so much about the North American situation. I will be ranging over a few of these impressions really today rather than giving a structured paper. I suppose what underpins it is my feeling, which is probably controversial notion, that the two streams of curation and management are actually in many senses antithetical. They run across each other fundamentally.

Curation is in many ways a childish occupation. I say that because as a child I had a shell collection and I took it very seriously. I spent hours when my parents probably thought I was up to no good where I was struggling over the classification of a shell in my bedroom with some relevant texts which were from the South Australian Museum shop. Having been on family trips to the beach and collected these shells and arrived back with them at our house, my duty was to classify them. It had to be done otherwise there were so many decorative elements that had to be tidied up in some way.

The ruminations over one’s collection begin very early in life. There always are collections. Americans, who are always quantifying these things, have determined that 90 per cent of children do collect. Therefore this notion of curation, which I believe is founded entirely in the discernment of difference, shades of difference between objects of a certain category so that one is discriminating. The sense of discrimination that one then applies to a whole range of activities and material culture objects from motor cars to clothing in one’s daily life come from this very same impulse. What museums were very good at doing in their early and middle years were privileging this particular insight, this particular facility, and raising it to a level of connoisseurship at its highest level and shading down to simple taxonomic classification at the other extreme.

In a period that one might think of as the golden age of museums – it is very dangerous to single that out as a particular period and one would immediately be accused of nostalgia if one put that in the past, and maybe it still lies ahead of us, I think some of the great exhibitions have come through the exercise of that connoisseurship, that sense of discrimination. The idea that even though the museum is providing the shell or the fundamental basis for the exercise of that connoisseurship, when the exhibition comes into being, that infrastructure or surrounding support mechanism for the relay of these sets of conclusions somehow fades back. What comes forward is the projection of ideas about a collection and the sense of difference between objects and how they reflect on our own culture. This is where I think an exhibition adds to knowledge and where a museum comes into its own. I don’t feel that a museum comes into its own where it reproduces the same sort of data that one sees in the media or in shopping malls.

I therefore think there is this strong tradition which we must protect and nurture in museums relating to this act of discernment. I think it is still alive but it is constrained more heavily than it ever has been by a whole series of interventions, directions and constraints. Many of these are there for very good reason. Collection management is composed of a series of interventions and constraints which are absolutely necessary for larger and larger collections to be preserved into the future, and I have absolutely no argument with that. But in the shift to that sort of structure which ultimately is preserving the collection, the mechanisms can become an end in themselves. Under those circumstances the curator who, as I began by mentioning, often maybe not childish but wilful and intuitive in their relations to objects and to the way in which a collection comports itself, these people have become rather inconvenient individuals within a museum structure and represent something of a threat to management. I don’t want to sound too sinister about this, but I think the best museums are those in which the ‘dangerous’ qualities of curators are valued and elevated to a degree. Museums have always been maverick places, and they should remain that way. The more they become like another branch of the public service, the greater the risk is that we lose that intimate contact with collections.

When I did Ochre and Rust I was realise now that I was in an extraordinarily privileged position in that I had free and ready access to the ethnographic collections at the South Australian Museum and to the archives that accompanied those collections. The archives after all developed in the South Australian Museum out of something called collection documentation so that material and even photographs and other manuscripts which were not strictly related to objects had come into the collections by virtue of being associated with the collector of particular objects. Until the 1970s, the idea of a separate archive being there and managed separately within the museum was something new. It was assumed that in order for a curator to do their job they would need to duck in and out of the room where the collection documentation was held or in those days the actual corridor where it was held, and I remember things being in old wardrobes.

Part of the curator’s day was to be handling objects and documents - and to be doing that without gloves, I must say - and to be surrounded by or moving through mists or ‘drifts’ of naphthalene that was going on. Some collection objects you couldn’t see because they were so buried under naphthalene. In fact, I was looking at some of the museum’s historical records and noting that one curator was known - this is going back to the early twentieth century - for the particular ambience of his office, the smell that was quite distinct as you walked past the office was a beautifully balanced mixture of naphthalene and pipe tobacco. I remember seeing ashtrays in the collections store. So this is another world. What it enabled was the immediate comparison of one object with another.

Today, for example, when one goes into the Pacific collections at the South Australian Museum or just in the last couple of years the same thing has occurred in the Australian collections, when you walk into the store you don’t actually see an object at all. What you see is a shelving system with essentially sheets of tiebeck - one comes to know all these terms - hanging down over the shelving system. So in order to see the objects, in some cases one pulls up a blind and gradually comes up and then you may see some boxes because the objects are not actually on the shelf. The whole facility to engage one’s visual memory with a collection, which has been the fundamental basis of curation for centuries, is now suddenly that much more difficult.

Of course, the drift in management would be to say, ‘The sooner collection is digitised, then you will have access to the material and you don’t need to make the store to see this, which is an invasive practice anyway and the collection shouldn’t have to suffer all these visits.’ That’s being very extreme. Nevertheless there is a fundamental assumption under there that one doesn’t really need to pick up and handle these objects any more and it would in fact be better for the objects if that didn’t happen. You can derive the elements of the story that you need to tell about objects from the images. As you can guess, I don’t agree with that.

The very fine detail of differences that exist between a whole run of central Australian hunting boomerangs, which most people would think are pretty similar, include the weight between one and another, the surface texture, the fineness and number of flutes across the surface and the actual type of ochre that is on the surface. More and more we are becoming interested in where this ochre might have come from, provenancing it and relating it to ochre mines and doing chemical analysis of this. When you re-approach the collections with this knowledge, you learn more from the collections all the time. Nowadays, I have found that the boomerangs are all stored face down in the drawers. That is because the numbers are usually on the back, and for collection managers it is much easier when you open the drawer to see all the numbers, because after all nobody needs to see the actual designs or these elements on the boomerang immediately.

This is indicative of the shift that has occurred. I think it’s gone a little bit too far and I would like to see it swing back. But it is difficult to see that happening when one no longer has that sort of curatorial authority in the old sense within the museum structure. That’s been more or less written out of the museum structures in Australia and it’s certainly been happening in Europe to the degree where, for example, in our own museum our exhibition committee does not contain a curator. Decisions about exhibitions are based pretty much on what sort of exhibitions can bring in what numbers of visitors to the museum. The idea of feeling a sense of duty towards interrogating the collection daily, weekly, monthly and drawing new insights out of the collection and transmitting those to the public is no longer really the prominent overwhelming criterion for constructing the exhibition program. Visitor numbers are the main thing.

In Adelaide I am of the view that we actually don’t have a visitor number problem. We probably have too many visitors. That’s heresy but we do get about 750,000 visitors a year and in a museum the size of Adelaide that puts enormous stresses on the infrastructure. We could well turn attention to the quality of the experience that the visitors have within the museum. We do that to some degree and we probably have a reasonable balance in Adelaide - I shouldn’t be too hard on the place - but I think it has reached the point where it is necessary to remind museum management of the collections in some cases. Even though they know they are there, they are there as a ghostly impediment to the museum’s main role which is to keep things ticking over, keep things dynamic, zany and funky - these are terms from a few years ago but you know what I mean.

What has happened is museums have seen a change in their management structure. In the 1980s there was a lot of rhetoric about the flattening of the structure as though this would be good for everyone. It probably was good for elements in the museum. But what this flattening was accompanied by was the drift from the directorate actually into the stratosphere and the flattening occurred at this level and there was a drift. In the period up to about 1970 the salary increments through the museum reached curatorial level and then there was basically 15 per cent and you were at the directorial level. It is now a doubling. This is probably inevitable. We had to begin to attract some big names to the directorates around the country. The idea was the more prominent these individuals would be, the more likely that money would be cascading from treasury into the museum. That didn’t really happen and I think we have returned to face some realities.

Those realities are that the stories that we can tell in museums are ultimately founded on the collections - they have to be. They have to be individual, unique stories in our museums. For that we need a little bit more leeway and autonomy passed to an endangered species within the museum, the curator, who can work together with collection managers in a way that we do sometimes see - I don’t want to generalise too much and I know that museums around the country have entirely different strategies and approaches for this which works very well in some organisations - but it is almost through accident than design that this is occurring. I think we have reached the stage where there needs to be a bit of redesigning, privileging and positive discrimination in a way towards the curatorial presence in museums to bring the collections and the knowledge associated with them to the fore.

I would like to think that I could write a book like Ochre and Rust mark II from scratch right now, but I know that it would be extremely difficult because I don’t have that access any more. One is almost in the position curatorially - I am not - of being a visiting scholar in one’s own museum in terms of getting access to the collections. This is really not the way it should be, and access to archives is also a similar issue.

I hope I have thrown a cat amongst some pigeons and provoked a bit of discussion about this. I recognise that I am probably representing things a little more grimly than many people see them, but it is enough of an issue for me to put it before you and see what people think about it. Thanks very much. [applause]

Date published: 31 May 2010