Reflections on the day
Margy Burn, Michael Crayford and John Greenwood with Louise Douglas, 14 May 2010
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Welcome to the last session of this terrific symposium. This is the time where we get to take a bit of a deep breath and think about what we have heard during the course of the day and we have three elder statespersons to help us do that –
MARGY BURN: Actually we’ve got four.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Have we? Oh right, me too. I will introduce them in a minute.
If you think about the day, we have had some lovely personal moments and autobiographical reflections: Phillip [Jones] sitting there with his shell collection was a lovely moment; Jennifer [Saunders] talking about the politician going around the collection store and asking why there was so much junk; and Eric [Archer]’s day – was it in 1980 – with that fantastic description of the smoking. We have had some of those personal moments. We have had some very serious scientific talk and data about lighting that was incredibly interesting to many people in the audience. We have had some great case studies both of projects like the discovery centre and objects like the Daimler. We have had some pretty far-reaching and breath-taking policy positions put to us as well. We have covered an enormous range today as we have looked at the whole question of caring for collections.
There are three people who are going to kick off the discussion this afternoon. The idea is they will say a few words, five minutes or so, and then we will throw the discussion open and ask you to think about what are the most interesting, thought-provoking things that you have heard today.
Margy Burn has had a distinguished career in libraries, first in the State Library of New South Wales and then as Assistant Director-General at the National Library looking after Australian collections. We thought we would bring her along here today partly because she’s been a longstanding champion of increasing the dialogue between libraries and museums, and museums have a lot of things to learn from libraries. We are always very pleased to have Margy.
Michael Crayford has a background in regional art galleries before he joined the Australian National Maritime Museum where he is now assistant director for collections and exhibitions.
And John Greenwood who has recently arrived, only ten months ago, from England and has become a senior lecturer at the University of Canberra. He taught for 22 years at the University of Lincoln teaching conservation. He is here to take up that role at the University of Canberra.
Why don’t we start immediately with Margy and hear what she thought were the most interesting, thought-provoking things that she heard today.
MARGY BURN: Louise and I didn’t get our act together until a few minutes ago, which is fairly typical for me. I have been thinking through the day about what I would say. Louise has known me since my career in Sydney but I had an earlier career in Australiana collections in South Australia, so Phillip and I go back ten years further than that. So I have had a 30-year career building great Australiana collections in a variety of libraries.
In terms of who I am, for the last 15 years I have been a program manager in two very large Australiana collections: first at the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales, and now at the National Library. So I have been responsible for all aspects of collection management – for database development, for cataloguing, for preservation and conservation as well as for reader services and the building up of the Australiana collections – for at least half of my career, which is a bit scary.
I was a child migrant, though not of the Forgotten Australian variety. If there is a reason for me becoming a librarian, which is equivalent to Phillip’s juvenile interest in shell collecting, it is because as a nine-year-old I had to choose which books I could bring to Australia – and there weren’t very many. I still have some of them. I am rather mystified now about the choice. One was Flight One: Australia, a Ladybird book which is fairly obvious, but another one is a New Zealand piece of fairly rubbishy children’s literature called the Mystery of the Pah.
I guess I do have a different perspective as a librarian from many who work in museum collections but I very much enjoyed the active professional involvement I have had with museum colleagues, which for me goes back to the early 1990s when I was the library sector representative on the Heritage Collections Working Group and then the Heritage Collections Council. As someone who has been responsible for building highly selective collections of documentary heritage material such as archives and manuscripts, pictures, oral histories and so forth, I have felt intellectually a lot more in common with many museum professionals than I have done with the great mass of librarians who are only dealing in books; or indeed with archivists, a profession which is numerically overwhelmed at least by people responsible for government records, which is a completely different professional activity than collecting archives. I have always been stimulated, challenged and sometimes in great disagreement with museum colleagues and I realise today that my bag is from the 1996 Museums Australia conference, which I see from inside the flap was called ‘Power and empowerment: Museums towards the new millennium,’ which I felt was nicely resonant now that we are well and truly in it.
But I have always found some of the expressions in the museum sector perplexing and particularly in the early 1900s in the foundation days of the Heritage Collections Council and its predecessors when I found the emphasis on interpretation, on telling stories – in fact, on telling ‘the’ story in many cases – and a kind of hostility towards things that would be taken for granted in librarianship about access to integrated collection databases, for instance quite strange. For me, I suppose Mat [Trinca]’s challenge to us that the default position for museums should be that the purpose of all collections should be about public access and that all of the collection should be front of house is a kind of no brainer for a librarian because that is fundamentally what our collections are about: they exist for use by whatever we call them – readers, researchers, clients, patrons – and the interpretation by library staff in traditional public programs activities, although it is becoming increasingly important for libraries, and that is certainly where we learn from museum colleagues, is secondary to that function. In some ways it is easy for us: I look at those fantastic pictures of the Powerhouse store and think ‘Thank God we don’t have those trains,’ but Terry Irving, the guy who used to write the Sale Room column in the Financial Review once wrote a scathingly critical column about the Mitchell Library when I was responsible for its collections saying, ‘The Mitchell Library could lose a steam train in its stacks.’ Although we have small objects, we have a hell of a lot of them. Ten million is what the National Library says, and that is not counting all the single, individual pieces of paper or volumes in the 15,000 metres of our manuscript collections. So don’t just think small is easy.
We have always had emphasis obviously on collection description, cataloguing, indexing and all the other collection management processes that enable users to then request and use collections in a way that is practically unmediated and we don’t really care what their purpose is. So they could be writing the definitive work on the life cycle of the common garden slug or a compendium of goldsmithing in Australia and their purpose is equally interesting to us.
There are two trends in the broader external environment that have perhaps meant – thinking about museums and the kind of traditional thinking in libraries as becoming closer together – and one is managerialism and the fact that externally there have been drivers which have forced us to think like an accountant about our collections, to put a value on them, to be able to account for them and to be able to control this asset that is in public ownership. I actually don’t think that is a bad thing, although I have cursed about having to value collections along with the rest of you. The other one, of course, is the technological developments. It is now unsustainable to think you can just have your little specialist collection database that you have lovingly built up knowing all that you do about whatever it is. Not only is there now an expectation from everybody in the world that they should have access to collection management databases, we have gone much beyond that. When we were thinking about the millennium in 1996, I don’t think we could have imagined web 2.0 and how people wanted to tell us their stories about our collections, tell us what we didn’t know about our collections and everything else.
At one point, and I can’t remember who was speaking – because sometimes I feel like I went to library school two centuries ago – when I went to library school 30 years ago we learnt about some of the great theorists of librarianship, one of whom is Dr Shiyali Ranganathan. The two museum people I have asked today had never heard of Ranganathan so I am going to take library licence and share with you Ranganathan’s five laws of library science. I can’t remember when these were written and I couldn’t find it on Google but the five are beautifully simple and beautifully eloquent and beautifully powerful:
Books are for use. Every man his book. Every book its man. Save the time of the reader. The library is a growing organism.
Just forget the books and the man, although I actually love the antiquarian phraseology of that and I don’t like it having been crudely translated to ‘every reader its person’, I do think those laws are widely applicable to museum collections. Clearly ‘every man his book’ – there’s the person who knows everything there is to know about slugs. And ‘save the time of the reader’ – so much about collections management and now what is just taken for granted as how we must manage and control and describe and make known our collections is partly about saving the time of the user, the visitor or whatever you want to call it.
As I heard a number of people talking today, I actually thought the fifth law is the one that is quite important: ‘the library is a growing organism,’ and that is not so much about the growth but about the organism, the ecosystem, the ecology. What we have heard a lot today is about how the museum, the library, the cultural institution – whatever we want to call ourselves – is this very complex ecosystem which of course is made up of components such as curators, registrars, conservators and so on and so forth. As with all ecosystems, sometimes in tension but impossible to remove a component part – it just implodes if you don’t have the whole.
There are some of the things that I heard today that resonated for me: I too hate white gloves, tyvac shrouds, the didacticism of the plasma screen – the authenticity of the higgledy piggledy unmediated object is where I want to be. But I always feel when I am in a gathering of museum professionals that I will go away fascinated by something I never thought I would be fascinated about. I was really glad to end up with a wonderful show and tell about the Royal Daimler. The ‘inherent vice of a Daimler’ will remain with me for a long time.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Thanks, Margy. [applause] John, over to you.
JOHN GREENWOOD: Thank you. We all seem to be boasting how long we have been doing it. My first job in conservation started 34 years ago, so I beat Eric there, and at my very first experience of conservation in 1974 we actually smoked in the lab with acetone and meth, and that was in a very august institution – but never mind, we are trying to stop students from doing that. I was asked to do three observations so I will do three observations because I’m a good boy and I do as I am told.
The first observation is what seems to be coming out when people are talking about their experiences is that everything is changing, and I think that’s a good, positive thing. Change is always a good thing, in constant revolution, which may not be the best way of looking at it in museums. There are always new challenges. New challenges are coming up all the time. Although people perhaps initially resist some of these challenges – some of us who have been in it 34 years mutter in our beards a bit – we are quite happy to look at these new challenges and to see if we can meet them and re-invent ourselves.
I remember 30 years ago people were starting to look at plastics. We had got over the ‘plastics last forever’ phase and we were realising that plastics didn’t forever and we were asking ourselves, ‘What can we do with them?’ And 30 years ago the answer was, ‘I haven’t the foggiest idea, possibly nothing.’ We have risen to the challenge. We have looked at them. We have analysed them. People have written books about them. We have realised the importance of plastics collections, and this has the resonance in new technology and now 30 years later we realise that we have almost no idea what to do about them, but at least now we know why we don’t know what to do with things. These things are constant. Thirty years ago one of the big things in conservation was looking at the true nature of an object. Now 30 years later we are at last asking ourselves the question: what on earth do we mean by ‘the true nature of an object’? So we are really starting to consider things.
Secondly, I would like to say that we are embracing this change, and from the talks people seem to be happy to embrace the change. Changes make things exciting. As Margy was saying it’s a bit of a no brainer really. We are starting to look at the stakeholders, the public, the museum staff, the museum professionals - I would even say the objects perhaps could be considered to be stakeholders because they also have their needs, although if a student wrote that objects have their needs, I would put a line through it. We are now starting to look at what do people want? Instead of saying, ‘We know what you want,’ we are starting to ask, ‘What do things want? How should we respond?’
The obvious idea of using sustainability. Here in Australia where you have a country that it may be 45 degrees outside and you are trying to keep it 20 degrees inside because of what happens to the objects. Now people are starting to say, ‘What does happen to the objects?’ and realising it is not quite as exciting, it’s not quite a problem as we really thought. The question to that is: why on earth did it take us 30 years to come to that point? Come on, we should have thought of that ages now.
I noted down here white gloves. Has anybody ever done any research into why you should wear gloves? If your hands are clean and dry, does has anybody ever looked at it to find out whether there is a problem. There you go: a PhD for somebody. These questions are good and we should be embracing these changes.
Somebody said, and I can’t remember who it was, that 30 years ago conservation was regarded as a pseudo-science. I would agree: it was a pseudo-science. We could get away with being scientists because we mainly worked with artists so we could impress them. Hey, we’ve got white coats. Now 30 years later there is some real science coming on, some real questioning, quantifying and analysis. That again is coming through in the way people are approaching things.
Quite a few of the presenters have referred to Animal Farm. Remember in Animal Farm that every time they opened the barn doors the rules have been rewritten. Now that’s the stage we are at. It wasn’t much fun for the pigs but it’s exciting for us. We perhaps feel some of the pressure that the pigs are under and we all have rules that we have to work under. The idea of ‘collection manager is good, museum manager is bad’ or something like that - we all have to work together. We may not like it but we have to do it.
The last observation is the enthusiasm that is coming out. Museums are fun. Some of us have been working in museums for over 30 years but we are still finding them fun. I still find objects exciting. I love working with students. They ask difficult and awkward questions like ‘what are we going to do’ and things like that – and that’s good. The enthusiasm is coming over from people from all different branches, from all different areas, that museums are fun; we are finding things out. If you are being stimulated, it means you are still thinking – and thinking is good. Obviously I put an education slant on all of these things. That is the way conservation and museum education is going that we are perhaps throwing it back more onto the students and making you think instead of saying, ‘These are the ideas, we will help top you up a bit with it.’
Those are my three observations. Apart from the last one, three plus one, just note: a lot of people here have been doing it for over 30 years which means that at some point or other they are going to have to stop us from doing it. So we need a new generation coming on: we need students; we need people thinking; we need people moving up in the profession. Conservation was sort of invented - a lot of it sprung up in the UK 35 or 36 years ago through the Institute of Archaeology. That generation – I was on the next wave of that – is going through. There are going to be some very prestigious posts in conservation vacant soon, so we should be looking out. We should be training; we should be looking at succession and seeing who else is going to come here, who is going to take over from us. I will leave it at that.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Thank you, John. [applause] Michael, over to you.
MICHAEL CRAYFORD: I suppose I should point out that what Louise had originally commented on in her introduction was that I do tend to have a different view from just a museum perspective. Coming from the art gallery they are quite different. I spent about half of my career in one and now the other. So I have gone from art history to social history, from the fine arts to maritime. There are big gaps and gulfs to try to explore. It is always difficult coming at the end of a session, and I suppose I have some excuse being a low status museum manager. If Phillip [Jones] is still in the room, one of the strategies I would probably suggest is to get the curators to write museum executive position descriptions, which might solve it all.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Philip has actually gone. You can say what you like.
MICHAEL CRAYFORD: Oh good. I have a couple of observations to make. I would like to thank all the speakers. It was a really engaging session today. It’s been particularly helpful because I have come from yesterday running a division planning day for strategic planning, which finished at about 4.30 and then I caught a plane to come here. It gives me some good ideas, arguments and other stimulating things for me to consider when I go back.
I will just point out a couple of little observations which touch on some of the things that have been said today. One of them is about what Margy was saying about managerialism. I take Phillip’s comment a bit seriously – not about me particularly– because I thought there was some logical flow to going from a curator to an assistant director; I didn’t quite see it as management. I suppose really what I am trying to say is: how do we stop those divisions occurring; how do we seem to have a better engagement between the different levels of people working in museums so that it is not us and them. Clearly it came out today a little bit about that. We need to look at that quite seriously, if that does exist. I think it’s really helpful if curators can be a little subversive, wilful, inconvenient because it does make places a little more edgy, contemporary and things like that.
One of the other things was about should we and how do we spend more time thinking of the philosophical underpinnings of this notion of the offsite storage. Mat [Trinca] generated some of those ideas – not that he has the hat of acting director in that context – but it does seem interesting we are having a debate now about those things when we are on the path of doing it. Maybe we need to look at exploring some of those ideas a bit earlier looking at more the philosophy behind it rather than the nuts and bolts.
There were lots of interesting innovations being explored in risk management of collections through lighting levels, exposure times, humidity and temperature variations, and they do provide new ways of seeing. But one of the great problems that I face in our museum is in international loans. There seems to be no consistency when you are acquiring objects from other institutions, and it ends up being one complete headache. It is all well and good for us here to be able to come up with these things, but somehow we have to come together internationally and nationally.
I thought that many of the projects referred here today, and probably understandably, related to national and state museums. Given that I worked for over a decade in regional New South Wales, it is really important we somehow translate some of these initiatives into those places that don’t have the facilities, the infrastructure, the expertise or the technical equipment. Many of them do have quite big, varied collections. We somehow need to pass on and transfer that sort of information.
And probably the last one for me was another philosophical question, and it’s probably based on my experience in art galleries and museums, in the end of the presentations today about the interventions into the fabric of an object, which was about – was it the Bentley?
LOUISE DOUGLAS: The Daimler. He only does ships these days.
MICHAEL CRAYFORD: I can give a bit of plug here for the Australian Register of Historic Vessels which has been dealing with this for quite some time. It raises some issues about whether the Museum for argument sake have taken the painting of Queen Elizabeth if it was in such a dilapidated state and repainted and in-filled the whole thing as you would with a car. It comes back to this notion of significance and it is something that Jennifer touched on about research into the de-accessioning of collections and the dangers that you give them up too quickly without proper research. It’s a similar sort of thing with objects that can take on different significance like in industrial design there has been a major shift to it becoming an aesthetic object. There is no reason why some of these objects can’t take on that sort of meaning, but they are put aside in some sense. We have to be quite careful about when we are going to intervene, because certainly that is an issue within art galleries about the nature of in-fills and repainting, as most conservers know and will probably fight with curators about. But I don’t know how museums do it and whether they do it effectively given that they traverse a lot of different material, both aesthetic objects and social history type objects. They were my observations of the day.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Terrific, thank you Michael. [applause]
What we thought we might do is ask you to respond to anything you heard from our speakers or to suggest yourself what has been the most interesting thing for you today that you will take away and perhaps talk about in your own institution. We particularly want to hear from the ‘younger set’, to use an old-fashioned term. Most of the speakers have been, as John observed, from the older generation, and we are not going to be here for much longer. I am interested to know what some of the younger people in the room think about what they have heard today and how we are going to forward in the museum world addressing these issues. Let’s see who is game.
CHRISTOPHER SNELLING: It’s a little bit of a reflection but it’s also a question. I am sort of new to the museum world. I was at the MCA [Museum of Contemporary Art] for 12 years before I came to the Powerhouse so I am also an art museum person. One of the things that struck me when I joined the Powerhouse – and this is from people I know – is they all said to me, ‘Why is it so dark?’ Today’s discussion about light levels was interesting but that was very much about the experience for the objects in the exhibition, and I wanted to know if anyone could reflect on the issue about the visitor experience. There is a feedback about the Powerhouse, why is it always so dark? I also think this museum is incredibly dark and I do think it does impact on visitor experience and ambience overall.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: I think it is true of all the big museums. That is a consistent complaint throughout big museums. Who would like to respond?
MICHAEL CRAYFORD: I can make an observation about it, and it goes against what Phillip’s argument was. That is, the curators and conservators do have a very powerful role in museums, and other people in evaluation, marketing et cetera often don’t get a voice in the debate about lighting. It comes up in my museum all the time, but we haven’t changed since I have been there. That might be a reflection of my capacity but I think it largely reflects standards that are set by conservation and curatorial. That’s my experience.
NICKI SMITH: I can get on my hobby horse here. I would like to respond by saying some of these light levels are set, for example, at 50 lux to protect some of our most light sensitive objects. But unfortunately in my experience with some museums we then expect that light to also light the floor, light the graphic panels, light the text labels, light the emergency stairwell. What conservation would really like is a more dynamic and sophisticated lighting system throughout a museum. We are often asking for light levels to come up, believe it or not, but the designer for the exhibition will say, ‘Oh no, we want mood lighting. We want it to look dark and mysterious and we want the object to glow.’ That’s the kind of comment we get quite frequently.
Some of you may not be aware there is actually a standard for lighting in public places where the floor needs to be at least 20 or 25 lux, and I am pretty sure none of our exhibitions in the past have probably met that as a standard. So I think there is a lot of room to improve lighting in museums. Sometimes I feel conservation gets blamed for poor exhibition lighting, when in reality we are actually trying to improve the situation and work for better visibility and better enjoyment for the public.
JOHN GREENWOOD: Just on that topic, as a conservator I would agree. Museums also go for the element of theatre and the idea that it should be more theatrical if it’s dark, which is a problem. Just a reflection: I was at the Museum of London just after its opening in the early 1980s in the royal textiles collection and the lighting was so low that someone who seemed elderly to me fell down the stairs and was quite badly injured, because the lighting as so low she couldn’t see where she was going. I think most of it is theatre.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Any further comments on this particular topic? [inaudible]
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I just wanted to say that at the Powerhouse probably 10 years ago, Pat Tamley, who was head of conservation there, worked with audience assessment to do a survey of audience and their feeling about light levels. There had been so many regular complaints about light levels. As a result of that investigation and survey work and thinking about the guidelines that have been set in conservation, the light levels were basically doubled for short-term displays. It was in consideration of the changeover, where lights were in the showcases, what the whole colour theme throughout a gallery was and what reflected light there was. I think there is within conservation a generosity to trying to make works accessible on display, which has been there in the profession.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Margy, you mentioned this dialogue between museums and libraries, so I am just asking the question: is there a dialogue between state and this museum with regional museums? And if not, should there be? Or are we getting too close moving towards Paul Keating’s plan for this place which was to have the money developing regional museums and that is where the National Museum artefacts, treasures or whatever are housed?
MARGY BURN: You started with me. There is a strong relationship between the three tiers of libraries: the National Library where I am now has no direct relationship with public libraries – that’s with the state libraries in each jurisdiction – but there is a very strong relationship between the state and public libraries within each state.
As a librarian my observation would be that there has perhaps been less feeling of having some sense of responsibility, obligation, consultative and supportive relationship between large museums and smaller regional museums than is the case in libraries. I have worked in two state libraries. I have worked in the State Library of South Australia and the State Library of New South Wales, and my job as Mitchell librarian took me to places like Cobar to the public library or Broken Hill where they had quite important collections of what in libraries is regarded as local studies. I would say as a librarian that from my observation, which is from outside and perhaps a little uninformed, I don’t think big museums have been as good at trying to do more to support smaller regional institutions than perhaps the library sector has – others may disagree.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Margy, I think you need to mention the Community Heritage Grants Program.
MARGY BURN: Yes, but it’s tiddly.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: True, I suppose.
MICHAEL CRAYFORD: Can I add an observation and I think it was what Maryanne [McCubbin] was talking about earlier on the nature of their needs in terms of regional and remote places in that they are not quite the same; they have a different relationship with the publics. That typifies a lot of problems with big state and federal institutions when they engage with smaller places, they don’t quite understand what the relationship should be. There used to be lots of problems when I was working in regional galleries where we hated the National Gallery coming in and giving us culture, and it was a common complaint. But there is quite a different thinking in regional places and I don’t think when you get more removed from it that you have a deep understanding of it. I think that’s where we have to explore.
JOHN GREENWOOD: I know virtually nothing about the Australian situation, but in the UK it was very similar and over the five or six years there has been a new project called ‘Renaissance in the regions’ where the regional museums, which I suppose would equate to the large state museums, are acting as hubs, and they are hubs with different specialist interests. Those hubs have a responsibility for training and working with the smaller museums. It seems to be quite an effective system. There is no money in it really, but they are acknowledging there are different levels and tiers of museums and that the knowledge can be passed down.
QUESTION: I have worked with volunteer museums for about four years and one of the issues – I don’t do it any more, not because I didn’t want to – is that they are not usually run by government. We are a totally different beast to what happens in England. It would be really lovely if we could have major institutions adopting a sister city relationship with a museum. Where there is a reciprocal relationship there’s a bit of learning that happens both ways. I hope Rebecca can talk a bit about what regional services does. They have been fantastic, but part of the problem is that smaller institutions have the same problems you do but far fewer resources and they just need a big brother.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE (REBECCA): I thought I would just add a few words. I work at the Powerhouse and I manage the regional program there. There are problems with a big institution working with smaller institutions in determining exactly what is needed. One of the issues which probably does need to be noted here is that it’s a matter of resourcing and priority. The big institutions often have people within them who do have the appropriate approach and the expertise and would love to get out there and work with their regional colleagues. But unless the funding is there to support those people and they are given the mandate within their work programs, it can’t happen. I think the big institutions do have to take that on board – whether it’s arguing for the funds or finding the priority within their own resources, but it ultimately will come back to people putting it top of their list.
GUY HANSEN: Just responding to Michael’s comments about the Daimler and at what point would we say this is too far gone. It’s a very valid point. To illustrate that point, I can say that we did know where the other surviving Daimler was. It’s in Rockhampton and is in much worse condition. We had a good look at that car and we realised that its significance had been completed obliterated by uses following on from that and that the other Daimler which we did purchase from South Australia, while it looks a mess, is actually in quite reasonable condition and we are very confident we can return it to close to 1954 with certain caveats. That assessment took something of a year of internal discussions and very serious consideration, particularly because we knew we were looking at a project which might run for three years. The initial outlay was $90,000 and staff time was considerable, and there had to be a really serious consideration about whether the museum was prepared to embark on this process. It’s a very good point that Michael raised.
MAT TRINCA: I was going to pass a comment about what I thought was one of the more interesting things that was said today, and it was the young woman who mentioned the idea about allowing for what I will call ‘planned ruin’ in collections. The reason for me that was one of the more interesting things, and I include my own comments in that mix, is that again there is a challenge of provocation to us to think about some of the underpinning, the under-girding of those assumptions we make about collections having value, their being preserved in perpetuity – all assumptions we find reasonably easy to make because they underpin practice and what we think of ourselves professionally. People did say that not all objects are equal, and that is partly along that stream of thought, I suppose, but the idea that the museum might have a rather more varied sense of what object collections are then the ones we commonly have, and it’s through an engagement with audience. We haven’t said a lot about audience. Michael something at the end today and it’s been mentioned, but the audiences make the museum and they might be making it through the collections being activated in some way. We cop that a number of the collections will be in a different state at the end of 50 years, 20 years or 10 years than they were at the start.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Any responses to that?
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: [inaudible]
MICHAEL CRAYFORD: I think a very practical outcome of that is for Christopher [Snelling] to bring out the religious memorabilia from the Powerhouse Museum and talk to Hillsong – you will double your audiences overnight.
CHRISTOPHER SNELLING: [inaudible]
LISA O’BRIEN: I guess mine is more of a comment. People who know me will know I am pretty passionate about volunteering and the power of volunteering, having worked with the volunteers here on the Enterprise. I feel that if we are serious about preserving cultural heritage and what we have left in Australia, which is not huge amounts of stuff, then we have a responsibility to help small organisations, historical societies and regional museums to preserve their collections. It’s not that we should do it for any other reason than we have a responsibility and I think we should look at ourselves as big organisations and wonder what we are doing.
I also would like to put out there the example of the carriage: would it make any difference if it was displayed in Cooma Cottage in the right conditions under the banner of the National Museum of Australia? Does it have to be on-site? How does that work for us? We want more display areas. Does it have to be on-site?
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Yes, as Guy said, anything is possible. That notion of the distributed national collection that was so alive in the 1990s, which is still kind of there, was a great framework then for having that connection made between the national institutions and the smaller institutions but it’s not something government wants to promote right now.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I have very much enjoyed today’s papers, and this was mainly a question for Mat. I was really interested in the idea of opening up collections and in terms of the potential of engaging audiences it’s an exciting idea. But in terms of the practicalities of rolling it out given all of the responsibilities that the National Museum has both to the museum here and also to the regional communities that we have observed, I would like to hear a bit more about the potential practical roll-out of this plan.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Oh, there’s a plan. Give the man a microphone.
MAT TRINCA: Didn’t I say at the start of my talk that I wasn’t speaking on behalf of the National Museum? There is great value in the 15-minute talk, Sarah, and the notion is you only have to fill 15 minutes so you don’t have to have the plan. I suppose what I was trying to do was act as a provocation to say that, notwithstanding the fact that we are moving forward with various versions of enabling public access, there is a considerable realm of possible thought and then action, I suppose, as a result of that that goes more neatly to this idea of should we really try to re-conceive the relationship between public and collection. That’s not something that I will be honest I have as a fully worked-out plan. I suppose it’s an invitation to people to join that debate about what that might mean for the Museum through the course of its future.
What we are essentially saying in much of the open collections debate hitherto has been: ‘How can I do what I am doing and let the public see more?’ I suppose what I am saying is: ‘Is there something more fundamental we should ask ourselves?’ And that is, the public should have the opportunity of these collections and the interest in the collections that they want to have, which I suspect is rather greater than they do, and how does our practice fundamentally change in museums to allow that to happen? What does a museum look like, I suppose is my question. Again, against myself I suppose, it’s the great line of being able to suggest a possibility and hope that someone else will answer the question. I do think that sometimes we imagine some of these things might be harder than they seem.
I used the example of the house museum in response to a question. There are examples of museums that keep almost all or the greater part of their collection with a greater sense of public access to that collection – or at least public view – and that allow a greater sense of affect. And by that I mean the capacity of the object to be engaged with in its morphology, its size, its shape, its volume, to understand something about what it is, as well as having some sense of interpretation or suggestion about meaning, which is part of a curatorial job. I am not absolutely convinced that it’s as impractical as it might first seen, I just think we haven’t thought about it a lot. It certainly means that we would not be collecting as much.
It is hard for me to believe that each of the 200,000 objects in our collection, and it’s only 200,000. You have to remember there are museums in this country with millions upon millions of objects in the collection. Two hundred thousand sounds like a lot but it’s a relatively small collection. I am sure there is a lot of material in that collection which is of modest value for various reasons. I am not discounting it. I think you saw in some of the suggestions coming now from conservators that they realise that too and are thinking about a gradation of treatment and gradation of the way we think about objects. To me that suggests that some of those objects don’t need to be in storage that is isolated, quiet and dark all the time. If they are in a public facility that we conceive of as a collections place that is the museum that allows people to see and experience a range of objects, it means that obviously high-value fragile materials are still kept with a sense for their future – but we do that in exhibitions now. If we looked at the really high value objects in our collection, most of those things are on display. I am not talking about the greater part of the collection that is not on display and whether it should be on a greater sense of public view. We have figured out in truth how to keep the Batman land deed, for instance, here in this Museum on display almost all the time. There are other ways of dealing with some of these issues apart from saying, ‘We have to put them in the store.’ I do think that the demarcation between store and public space is one that the open collections model has moved to try to address. There are some excellent examples of that, and we heard about some of that today. But that is not really asking a more fundamental question about whether that practice suits public need. Is that a fair answer to the question?
LOUISE DOUGLAS: That is good, because we are about to run out of time and I am acutely aware I took the microphone from this young woman – and she is young too.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: My childishness will be proof by what I am about to say. I was also really taken by what I thought was a very intelligent comment about the de-accessioning, letting something de-accession itself. I thought that was a very interesting idea. I have a few ideas floating around but, thinking in terms of natural history collections and how allowing a specimen to de-accession itself can be used as an interpretive device. I recently did a project on the King Island emu which is a dwarf extinct species of emu from King Island. Some specimens were collected in 1802 by the Baudin expedition. There are very few specimens of this animal left on the planet, with one of them – no, actually there are two there – in Paris at the Natural History Museum. They used to be on display but now they are too precious to be put on public display. There are so few specimens of this animal that they are too precious to be put on public display. But the museum has 75 million specimens, 45 million of those specimens are insects but still that’s an awful lot of critters. And I thought what a shame that we can’t put this animal on public display not only because it’s precious but also it’s too old, ugly and decrepit to compete with the admittedly magnificent taxidermy that is on display. If you ever get the chance to go to that museum, it is mind-boggling: the animals look like they are about to turn around and bite you, they are so realistically rendered.
It would be a really good idea to put this animal on display because its decay, its decrepitude and the fact that it’s falling apart will say more about the nature of extinction than putting it down in a vault three storeys underground in Paris. But of course we have to let go, yet we can’t let go because, as museums are the DNA of our civilisation or archives are the DNA of our civilisation, these animals are the DNA of life on earth, and death on earth as well. I don’t know what my point is but I think that’s a really interesting idea – maybe things aren’t meant to be forever. You have to let go sometimes and let the ephemeral reveal itself.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I thought it was the ultimate in slow drift.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: But this is the real meaning of extinction that this animal has been driven to extinction and is falling apart. So let’s show it; let’s not hide that fact. But I guess in terms of a social history museum, the things we need to think about are slightly different.
JOHN GREENWOOD: Can I just add a rather boring technical point: Australia now has a specialist natural history conservator, Felicity Bolton, with about ten years experience in the [British] Natural History Museum who is now working for Museums Victoria. She was one of my students many years ago.
MARYANNE McCUBBIN: Thanks for letting me speak, Louise, especially because I am not young. People from the UK will know a lot more about this than me but I think there’s been a lot of thinking, talk and action in the UK about opening up access to collections in storage. Suzanne Keene has driven a lot of the thinking about around this and worked with a lot of the major institutions and come up with a whole lot of ideas about the way in which you can open up collections out of storage and within storage. Eminent institutions like the British Museum are starting to do some innovative things, with the exception of repatriation. They are travelling really significant objects around, presumably at the knowing cost of their preservation. So I think that the UK is worth looking at and I have a sense their thinking is ahead of us in this regard.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Thanks. We will have to draw proceedings to a close. Let’s have me remind you that you should fill in your evaluation forms. If you haven’t, you need to do it before you go. Let’s say thank you to all of our speakers and the organisers. [applause]
At the risk of being immodest, Phillip Jones, who had to leave to start a trek to travel to London, asked me to say publicly that he had found the day very inspiring – partly I think because his great talk at the beginning of the day was inspiring for us – and that he was deeply impressed with the quality of papers that had been presented today. He particularly wanted to remark – this is the immodest bit – that he thinks that the extent of expertise at the National Museum around collections and the commitment to collections has grown dramatically in the last few years and he wanted to make that comment public.
Can I say finally thank you to all of you for coming. It was fantastic to see so many of you and such a terrific amount of interactivity and discussion about what is still a really critical issue. We have talked a lot about the last 30 years and where we are now. But I have been reflecting on where are we going to be in 30 years in 2040? It will be very different from where we are now. That’s about the only thing I think we can say. So thank you everyone.
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Date published: 28 June 2010