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Museums and ‘open collections’

Mathew Trinca, National Museum of Australia, 14 May 2010

JOANNE BACH: Our final speaker in this session is Mat Trinca who, in keeping with the theme of people not starting out their careers as collection managers or curators or museum professionals, was once a journalist. Mat has worked as a curator at the Western Australian Museum and at the National Museum of Australia. He’s the Assistant Director of Collections, Content and Exhibitions and he’s the current Acting Director of the Museum. Thank you.

MAT TRINCA: Thanks, Jo, I appreciate the introduction. It seems to be almost a dim, dark past in which I thought about myself as a journalist but I appreciate still being remembered in that way. I should say as well that, given that you have heard that I am the acting director here and there are so many NMA staff here today, what I am about to say in this paper is certainly not setting out NMA policy in any way. I am going to fly a bit of a kite that in a sense is connected to the discussion that emerged after the first suite of papers this morning, and you will see what I mean as I go along.

At the heart of museums lies a deep commitment to the idea that our material lives are worth recording, that heritage objects provide insights into the circumstances and meaning of human life, and that we all benefit from a willingness to look to our pasts and to record our histories not simply on the page alone but also through a consideration of the physical circumstances of human existence. Most of us in this room who work in museums know that the work of collecting, documenting and preserving collections is a complicated business. I think we heard enough this morning to give even those of you who don’t work in these institutions a clear idea of that. The best way to safeguard collections is to keep them in stable, consistent conditions that help prevent what is - as it is for all of us - their inevitable decline. In a sense, museum professionals are consciously interrupting the natural process of decay - I want to return to this a bit later on - in much the same way as our colleagues in the built heritage sector seek to preserve buildings and prevent their ruin.

The fact is it is often easier and more efficient to undertake these tasks in purpose-built or at least purpose-specific facilities that limit access and interruption. You got some sense of that in Greer and Eric’s presentation about the planning for the new Centre for National Museum of Australia Collections [CNMAC]. Much of this is self-evident: the less movement you have around collections, the less risk there is of their suffering damage and trauma in a general sense; the fewer people in an area, the easier it is to control the security and the environmental conditions of that space. Over time we have developed a complicated series of protocols and standards to moderate and govern how we treat, store and control objects in storage. Some of these standards have acquired almost universal acceptance, such as the much-quoted and at times maligned British standard 5454. But often professional acceptance by peers is hinged upon our willingness to sign up to such standards. The result has been that in most major museums the greater part of heritage materials are in storage, and Jennifer Sanders said much the same thing this morning. At this Museum, about three per cent or four per cent of the 200,000-plus objects in the collection are on display at any given time. The proportion becomes even smaller and more fragmentary, depending on the size of the collection and the display space that is available.

Such is the broad operational context which has determined the physical and conceptual division of museums between front of house and back of house functions - we heard that phraseology used this morning. Practically, we take for granted the fact that the spatial organisation of the museum depends upon a series of separated spaces to which access of varying kinds is highly controlled. The public’s preserve largely is front of house, while operational staff do important collections work in back of house areas. Moreover, this physical separation of collection stores from museum galleries has many more pronounced over time so that in most major museums today collections storage is not collocated with the exhibition space. Put simply, the conventional wisdom has it that collocation of collections and exhibitions space has just become too costly.

Since the 1970s at least, the tendency has been for collections to be stored at cheaper, greenfield sites, and we heard about the suburbanisation of collection storage a little bit this morning, while gallery and visitor functions are located generally on high-value central city sites. The result has not just been the physical separation of front and back of house functions but the actual isolation of these operations from each other often at very considerable distances. That’s not a division that has gone unremarked, and we have heard today already some discussion about the open collections thesis. From the 1970s at least there have been advocates for greater public access to collections and calls for opening up collections to researchers and other external interests. Writing in Curator in 1975, Roland Force echoed the thoughts of many museum professionals faced with what was a new and increasing pressure to enhance public access to collections:

Many requests for access come from individuals who lack the background and experience and in many cases the integrity to warrant approval of access. Members of the general public are requesting more and more access to collections which could become a very serious problem.

Such debates about collections access were really the early signs of the emergent democratising intent in museums. They presaged the considerable review and re-assessment of museum practice that has come to be known broadly as the ‘new museology’. While in truth some of the new museology’s arguments are rather less than revolutionary, the movement did at least announce a more inclusive, open mood or stance in museums. As Stephen Weil noted in 2002:

The focus of museums in recent decades has turned outward toward the visitor rather than inward to collection building for its own sake.

Over time this has in part translated more specifically into arguments for open access collection storage areas or, alternately, open collections galleries in museums. You see an example of the former in Christopher Snelling’s presentation about the Powerhouse Museum’s very successful Castle Hill site. You see an example of the latter - that is, of an open collections area in a museum - in this Museum downstairs in the Gallery of First Australians. There are various incarnations of this idea around the world. I won’t go into them today because of the fear that we are going to run over time. Suffice to say that I agree with Christopher that, while there have been some exercises like this take place around the world, there is no simple model when one is trying to establish a sense of how one should proceed about open collections access.

Ultimately, however, most of these exercises in opening up collections and revealing museums’ back of house functions are necessarily limited. They improve access for visitors to collections and sometimes for staff as well but they manage to distil by separating the viewing public and the object usually by circumscribing a public pathway through the building. You saw in the presentation that Greer and Eric made about the CNMAC proposal that that is essentially the sort of public access that will be afforded in that proposal. Such facilities still privilege sight, that is, a strong visual sense of the object, a fact which is not limited to open collections areas but is part of the difficulty that we face in all exhibitions in galleries today given that so many of the objects that we include in exhibitions are included in glass showcases. There is a rendering of two-dimensionality when we are trying to explore the three-dimensional.

Where there is an opportunity for visitors to walk in and around object stores generally - not always but generally - they can’t touch the objects or approach them in ways that reveal or allow a more complete apprehension of their dimension and mass. If you are interested in this subject of touch in museums, there is an excellent publication by Helen Chatterjee a couple of years ago called Touch in Museums, and I commend it to you. Public access in these circumstances is still really seen as an adjunct to the museum’s core business in stores rather than its central mission, yet museums are facing a growing number of questions about this divide between front and back of house functions. The demand for a different way of conceptualising the relationship between the public’s interests and heritage collections is driven both, I think, by contemporary political imperatives and by developing information technologies - and admittedly it takes us into difficult professional terrain.

In terms of the contemporary political agenda, some things are becoming increasingly clear: museums are now, and I believe rightly, seen as places that must work to help activate a social inclusive citizenship that speaks to the plural realities of our society. This is an expansion of the democratic sentiment that impelled earlier discussions in museums about public access to collections. Now, however, the politics of social inclusion stand as a broader rationale for the entire sector. It’s a statement of principle, if you like, that is used to substantiate the public worth of collections and museums.

While this means that museums are increasingly places that matter, it is no longer adequate to simply argue the virtues of storing and maintaining heritage collections in line with best practice standards. Put crudely, such arguments, however well articulated in terms of professional practice and legislative obligation, fail to explain the clear social dividend that results from such activities. It is not enough to fight the good fight by arguing that collection storage is a core business of museums, and I know this through painful experience myself. The politics of the day demand that we show the public what’s in it for them.

It is all too easy to blame our political masters for their apparent myopia for some of this conundrum, for this problem. In truth, it may well be that they are actually tracking the public mood all too clearly and they realise that people are now thinking differently about their relationship to state agencies and public culture. As a sector, we haven’t been all that successful at explaining why it’s important to hold and preserve collections in perpetuity. Setting aside those deeply-felt professional assumptions, it’s hard to sustain arguments that our heritage collections somehow deserve to be preserved without explaining the clear public value of such expenditure.

It’s not just a question of the dollar cost of these activities. More pertinent perhaps is the resource cost of maintaining and preserving collections in closed storage facilities. It has certainly gained increasing public attention and criticism. It’s a curious fact that in museums, which are actually devoted to the preservation of heritage collections, they have relatively high energy and resource use themselves that seems at odds with this apparent commitment to the ideals of conservation more broadly.

Moreover, new information technologies and networks are changing how people think about their public assets, and that includes collections. We know that social media tools and contributed content are recasting the public’s relationship to collections online. When a web user contributes content to a site regarding a particular object, and I am thinking here of the great success the Powerhouse has had with this sort of facility, in some cases they are actually helping the museum to improve the documentation of its collection. But this naturally fosters an almost proprietorial regard for the collection and in fact most of us think that is undeniably a fairly good thing. The trick is we can’t really expect such relationships, having activated them and having forged them between specific communities of interests and heritage collection materials, to remain the preserve of the virtual world alone. As we improve access to collections online, we are going to need to be prepared to see exponential growth in public interest in physically seeing and perhaps even handling object collections. In a sense why should we be surprised at this? After all, most of us are in this game for exactly that reason: we enjoy that transaction ourselves. It is part of the reason we love this work.

Are we prepared to search for a new mode of thinking about our collections that delivers clear public value by establishing a museum practice which absolutely collapses the divide between front and back of house operations? This isn’t simply a question about whether or not there should be public access to collection spaces - I think that’s a given and I applaud the work that has been done around this country and abroad to that end. But I suppose I am asking a deeper question, and there was a strong indication of that today earlier on in the first session: should we re-imagine collections as intrinsically public documents all their lives?

There are also strong professional reasons for thinking about a physical as well as conceptual massing of collections storage and publicly accessible galleries on the same site at the very least. Even if you are concerned about the notion of complete public access to collections, the idea that collections should be collocated with gallery spaces has clear functional and organisational benefits. Instead of moving objects and people between sites, risking damage and costing resources, the museum’s material assets are then publicly available at the heart of the organisation’s main physical investment rather than occupying space in a distant suburb. No more shuttles between stores and exhibition spaces, no more wasted travel time to stores and storage areas for collections staff. But the political reasons for this are even more compelling: by centring collections in the public eye, museums close off the possibility of criticism for using resources on collections management that is largely hidden from public view in back of house functions.

I suppose what I am arguing for here is more work on constructing an enduring dialogue between collections and the public that goes beyond the open collections idea. This is more than enabling public access to storage facilities or creating open collections galleries which mimic collections stores for the public. In both cases, we are still coming at the issue of making collections publicly accessible by considering that issue after the fact of collections’ long-term storage needs. This is a risk averse view rather than one which seeks to manage the risks involved in making collections truly open.

Can we turn this argument on its head? Instead of seeing public access as an add-on to museums’ storage operations, is it possible to imagine collections storage itself as a by-product of publicly accessible collections? Can we re-order our thinking so that the default position, if you like, of collections management is public access and usability rather than the other way around? After all, why do we hold these collections in the first place if not for the public benefit?

The word ‘storage’ itself may be an unhelpful term in this regard. It suggests isolation, darkness, quietude - all good things for preserving objects but less good for an active museum in the twenty-first century. Perhaps the time has come to actually consign the term to the dustbin of museological practice and think instead about how to manage all collections with an ongoing emphasis on their public use and accessibility all the time. How might museums work if we began from that premise that objects should be accessible and then we worked backwards from that point depending on the particular preservation needs of, for instance, very high value and high-risk collections? Instead of front and back of house functional areas, how would we make all museums all front of house? That is, oriented more completely to their publics. In this sense what we might seek is a continuum – and the phrase was used this morning - between collections areas, some of which may be more heavily interpreted than others but all of which would permit public access of varying degrees.

There are some important principles at work in what a facility like this might look like. The first one I think is to do the hard work and convince our political masters largely, and our public, that we should collocate collections and stores on the same site. It is worth noting that some recent developments – and I am thinking here of the new National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo which are demanding that as part of their functional brief. I thank Greer and Eric for telling me about this. That is one principle.

Perhaps another is that we begin with the premise that collections should be accessible and then we evaluate the gradations of access possible for material types. I think we need not only to look at what is happening in terms of the presentation of objects that we have first imagined at stores but now in a sense are going to be brought into a public facility but also to look at our existing exhibition practice. We need to think about how we can make more objects accessible, make the possibility of them being touched more open or at the very least not encased in glass vitrines. The question this morning that was asked by someone in the room about the capacity to let an object de-accession itself in the exhibition space is germane to this. It reminds me of a discussion I had with a professor of history at the University of Western Australia some years ago, Norman Etherington, who had done a lot of work on heritage sites and who said to me there was a very sensible principle in heritage management that was not being used and that was to simply allow buildings to ruin over time. I remember at the time being almost horrified at the prospect that somehow someone who has worked in the heritage sector would be so clear and obvious about saying, ‘Look, I am quite happy for a building to ruin and decay.’ I wonder whether though in this context there is something in that for us today.

The last principle perhaps is to say, ‘Look, within the context that we can do this, in the context that we can ask our staff to be on public display, let’s try and make museum operations more accessible, more open and transparent.’

So I will leave you with this idea of the collections continuum at the heart of the modern museum. It’s an issue that would test us on a number of fronts: certainly on the strength and purpose of our professionalism but also on our deeper sense of the museum’s mission and its public responsibility. It also really asks us perhaps to set aside assumptions about ourselves as museum practitioners and ask ourselves what or who we are really here for. Thank you.

Date published: 31 May 2010