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Remembering the goal

Maryanne McCubbin, Museum Victoria, 14 May 2010

GUY HANSEN: Our next speaker is Maryanne McCubbin. Maryanne has worked in archives and museums for over 20 years. She was the inaugural appointment in her current position Head, Strategic Collection Management at Museum Victoria which plays a key role in managing the museum’s collections. Before that, Maryanne held curatorial and management positions in the museum’s history section. I would like to invite Maryanne up to speak.

MARYANNE McCUBBIN: Thanks very much, Guy, and thanks very much for asking me to be here today. I, too, was a smoker myself, and when I started off as an archivist nearly every archivist in my institution smoked. So we smoked right over those precious archives for many years.

I want to make a few observations and generalisations, like the previous speakers, about what I have seen in terms of what I am going to call the three strands of collection workers over the past 30 years: curators, collection managers - and I mean that term in its broadest sense - and conservators. I am very sympathetic to a lot of Philip says, although I disagree with him, and I suppose this is just a viewpoint, that collection management and curatorship are antithetical. I would argue perhaps that they can be complementary.

Curators are as old as modern museums themselves. Directors were the curators, and even today some directors insist on playing a curatorial role. It is based in disciplinary expertise, and its that knowledge allows them to develop the collection, although that presents a very clean-cut story and I think collection development is much more complex than that.

Curators tend to retain very strong links to their own disciplines as opposed to identification with their institutions. As Philip Jones eloquently portrayed, their role at the top of the hierarchy and at the epicentre of museums has wavered to a greater or lesser degree over the past 30 years.

I want to identify a couple of contemporary issues and challenges that I have seen for curators. I think curators can be dismissive of genuine other expertise that can be brought to bear on achieving the same aims for object material, and those aims are access and preservation. I think curators can also be threatened by the idea there could be other experts even in their field, and particularly with collections on the web that presents the possibility of amateur experts even having a role in interpreting and understanding some of these collections.

Sometimes to me watching curators collect, it seemed that I am watching some sort of binge or compulsive behaviour. It looks like the goal seems to be for them that it’s in the act of collecting itself and that, once something is acquired, that’s the end of it. That seems to me very paradoxical. We all live with these legacies of collections where curators have argued very vociferously about their meaning and value and yet, once we get them, they have tended not to document them and the meaning and value is lost.

Some challenging questions for curators that are being raised now are the acts of sustainable and accountable collecting. Collecting is a major public investment, and I think curators are starting to come around to accepting the idea that actually they are investment decisions and we need to take account of the sorts of investments we make in those collections. Some other ideas that are getting more currency are de-accessioning as a genuine collection enrichment program rather than a money-making venture or a storage saving device. Also with collections on the web, that presents a challenge to curators about the incorporation of other expertise, including amateur expertise.

With regard to conservators, as Eric said, they have been around for about 40 years. They are science based disciplines so it is firmly ensconced in genuine and distinct professional training. Yet conservation has had to work hard to establish its credibility in some museums. I think others in museums see conservators as pseudo scientists and perhaps rather think that they are inflexible pedants. I would also make the observation that I have seen curators and collection managers assume that they can be conservators and assume that there is not much to it, that they will look at an object and determine whether it is in good or bad condition, and therein it ends. I think that’s a very wrong view.

I think conservators have a particularly strong identification with their profession rather than the institutions they work in, but they haven’t really been brilliant at arguing their case. The view of conservators is not helped by some incredibly rarefied specialisms, particularly in galleries, that just seem inexplicable.

Some contemporary observations, it is my viewpoint that the conservation profession is gaining more credence and credibility in museums and that it is increasingly accepted they have a genuine, unique role in preserving and making collections accessible. As Eric indicated, there is a lot of questioning and a lot of changing practice at the moment around what have been longstanding conservation maxims, if you like. These questions about relative humidity and temperature question the science. They make the science basis of some of these maxims problematic in the present.

To turn to collection managers, they are the newest kids on the block and they are not necessarily linked to formal training. They have been around for about 30 years and they have grown out of curatorial assistants or technical assistants, if you like. I think they have spent a lot of time establishing their own turf. They have borrowed bits of practices from a range of professions. My observation is they have a mixture of identification with the profession, particularly registrars, but broader based collection managers tend to have a stronger identification with their institution.

With regard to contemporary observations, Philip really brought this home that collection managers, in establishing their turf, may have actually locked curators out of collections and I think that is very sad and really inappropriate direction. Philip himself is recognised as one of Australia’s foremost curators in terms of his engagement with the collection, and they must be able to bring their genuine expertise to understanding and caring for that collection.

Collection managers haven’t got the security of an identifiable discipline, so they can be tetchy and sensitive and their work can be closed for view. Of the three strains that I have discussed collections management has been the growth area of collections work over the past 20 years and also, interestingly enough, right at the moment there is increasing specialisation within the collection management area itself.

I have mentioned the goal a couple of times, and this is where I beg to differ from Philip. I think there are two goals for having museum collections. I desperately hope and implore, in a sense, that we all agree with these because I think if we do it helps us. The first goal is to provide access to the collection so that its value and significance is realised in the present through exhibitions and all sorts of other ways.

The other goal that we are all trying to practice, curators included, is to preserve it so that its value and significance can be realised in the future. If curators aren’t doing that, they are doing something wrong. This requires a major interdisciplinary effort. Each professional has unique skills and knowledge to bring to bear on achieving these aims as well as other professions - as much as Philip might dislike hearing this. I think we also need to work with engineers, building managers and even risk managers, amongst many others. Yet our disciplinary foundations and the different evolutions of our profession make working together quite difficult, and I think that’s a great challenge. The better frameworks, about which we will hear more today, the collections risk management framework and the significance assessment, command an interdisciplinary approach to be effective.

Finally, I want to make a final word on small museums, and I am sure there are many people in the audience who come from small museums: All I can say to you is that your job is really tough, because looking after and curating collections does demand a level of knowledge and skill that is impossible for one or even a few people to carry within them. You need to be everything but you can’t be everything. All I could say to you is that I think it is useful for you to be aware of the particular skills and knowledge that you do need to exercise in the range of your activities that you are carrying out and that you try to get the right help and the right expertise whenever you can. Thank you.

Date published: 10 June 2010