A Sinking Feeling

Klimt - Judith II (Salome) 1909. Photo © Alamy

Klimt – Judith II (Salome) 1909. Photo © Alamy

As a city and a museum issue close to my heart, it came as disturbing news last week to discover that Luigi Brugnaro, the Mayor of Venice plans to sell off several masterpieces from the city’s public collection in order to help pay off some of its debt. The works considered for sale, which include pieces from Marc Chagall and Gustav Klimt are estimated to sell on the market for somewhere in the region of £300 million. Although Venice’s debt is becoming an increasing burden, the deaccession of public collections to raise funds for alternative municipal initiatives is not, and should not ever be considered the solution to these problems. Brugnaro’s announcement last week is a worrying development.

Deaccession is a dangerous game, as was proven by the scandalous behaviour of Northampton Borough Council last year when then leader David Mackintosh attempted to fund his vanity project, a new wing for the town’s flagship museum, by selling the ancient Egyptian Statue Sekhemka. Despite protestations from the museum itself and various pressure groups, the council forged ahead with the sale of the object which raised just under £16 million at Christie’s in August last year.

The result of this was that, not without warning, the council’s entire museum service (Northampton Museums) lost its Arts Council England accreditation, rendering it ineligible to receive support from various heritage funding bodies and arts grants. It has also been banned from membership of the Museums Association for five years, and seen the winding up of the Friends of Northampton Museum group after 55 years of practical and financial support. It is estimated that the cost of these losses will far exceed the money raised by the sale, leaving Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and now its sister institution, Abingdon Park Museum, worse off than they were before.

The heavy sanctions handed down to Northampton Museums are in line with the disregard for museum ethics that the county council has shown. First and foremost the statue, a gift from the Marquess of Northampton to the people of the city and so held only in trust by the museum, was therefore not theirs to sell. Even if it were, to treat museum objects as assets as opposed to a collection, sets a dangerous precedent. Museum objects are to be preserved for their artistic, cultural or educational value. The actions of Northampton Museums run the risk of changing public perception of a museum collection to what Stephen E. Weil once called, “A Deaccession Cookie Jar,” meaning people view the objects as material of a financial value where the money could and should be better spent on other council services, such as schools and hospitals; a mindset with the potential to strip museums bare.

This is sadly what is now happening in Venice. With the city in huge debt and struggling to fund its municipal services, Luigi Brugnaro has cracked open the Deaccession Cookie Jar and pulled out several important masterpieces from the public collection. While still inexcusable, Northampton Borough council at least intended to keep the money from Sekhemka’s sale within their museum service. Venice on the other hand, should the sale of their works go ahead, will siphon the money into other things, leaving their museums culturally and financially out of pocket. On top of this, by placing other public services on a higher pecking order, the city surrenders all justification for preserving any of its collections should the public demand more sales to be made. Given that such action provides only short-term debt relief, it is entirely possible this could occur.

Brugnaro’s attempts to safeguard the majority of the collection whilst justifying these particular sales by claiming that, “they are not directly related to the history and culture of Venice” is merely further problematic. Using this logic, Venice has created two different sets of museum ethics, one for native objects and another for those of foreign origins. The result of this is that by publicly proclaiming it’s permissible for them to deaccession non-Venetian objects, they surrender one of their key counter-arguments to potential repatriation requests, further endangering their collections.

Above all, this is simply a saddening cultural loss for the city. Venice has long since ceased to be the merchant trading hub that may once have applauded such capitalist endeavour, and is now limited in the way that it functions. It is a UNESCO world heritage site in its entirety, meaning renovation is not permitted, only preservation and restoration. However the city has flourished under these restrictions for a long, long time as a city of art. Its beautiful exteriors are works of art in themselves, while the awkward interiors of its plethora of Palazzi are filled with everything from Greco-Roman antiquity to world famous contemporary artists.

I once heard Venice described as “like a Disneyland for grown ups,” but you could safely bet you would never see a cash-strapped Euro Disney packing up and selling Space Mountain just because it wasn’t related to any of their films. For Venice to sell its art is to sell part of its soul. Brugnaro rightly points out that Venice is a sinking city, but shipping out its paintings will not keep it afloat. In doing so, Brugnaro will be no better than his predecessors who shamefully green-lit allowing cruise ships to sail through the Guidecca Canal, causing irreparable damage to the city for short term financial gain.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 21.10.2015

Show Me The Money

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It’s a museum I have always engaged with, despite never actually setting foot in the door. The Museum on the Mound is the collected history of the Bank of Scotland, situated onsite at their Edinburgh head office where, outside, a sign expertly grabs your attention by simply asking, “ever seen £1 million?” No. Implicit in the question obviously is the suggestion that you should come inside, where you can see £1 million to which I again would say, no, thank you.

 

I’m under no illusions that some people will likely feel differently, but personally I cannot muster any interest in going to look at a big pile of unattainable cash. However the more often I passed the same sign, the more the issue began to bother me, and I eventually started to question whether £1 million in cash should even be a museum exhibit at all? So I asked myself what criteria it needed to meet: Is it of historical or artistic value? No. Can it help me better understand myself, or the community I am a part of? Not in my opinion.

 

Furthermore, is it even ethical for a museum to have £1 million in cash in its collection? To accession an object is an implicit acceptance that said item is not a liquid asset, and cannot therefore be deaccessioned for the purposes of generating funds. But cash literally has no other use. To accession £1 million in cash is to ring-fence money that can never now be spent. The Museum on the Mound is fortunate however in that it is operated by the Lloyds Banking group and is therefore well financed. One would imagine that any other museum that had deliberately written off £1 million in this fashion would find itself particularly dubiously positioned should it then require the reliance of volunteers or heritage funding bodies.

 

To exhibit any amount of cash, especially in that quantity, with seemingly no context beyond “because we can,” seems on the face of it slightly vulgar. It was clear however that I was going to have to see it, and I was surprised upon arrival to discover that it wasn’t part of the museum display at all. Instead, as staff promptly informed me, it is “just on the right” as you enter the building, in a cabinet in the gift shop. To me this was an immediate suggestion that the museum itself had found similar difficulty in actually justifying a position for it amongst the genuine art and ephemera in their collection. On top of that, the cabinet is filled exclusively with cancelled notes, meaning it isn’t even £1 million cash at all; it’s a box of valueless paper.

cancelled cash

All of a sudden this struck me as somewhat of a shame. The cabinet as I had imagined it was at least a thought-provoking piece. Further to that, it would have been a challenging exhibit as it refuses to adhere to one of the key museum conventions: that the price of their collections cannot be revealed. Museum objects are not for sale, so they do not have a price. This is the answer any visitor who asks the tired old “how much is that worth?” question should receive. In a previous job I was often asked how much Pablo Picasso’s The Poet was worth, to which I informed the visitor its value was as a key piece in one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century, crucial to the evolving style of arguably the world’s most famous artist, and provides a perfect historical context to the rest of the museum’s collection. It strikes me now how interesting it could have been for me to direct those visitors, seemingly interested only in the financial value of the museum, to an exhibit simply of £1 million in cash. To challenge them to actually ascertain for themselves whether this really was the satisfaction they were looking for. £1 million in cash not only unavoidably reveals to the visitor its financial value, it even shows them the money. One would hope this might inspire people to see more than just dollar signs in the masterpieces on offer.

 

In a late twist, a second £1 million in cash appears half way through the museum. Were it not for the fact you have already seen it before, this exhibit would make complete sense. The second box of cash, within the museum display this time is simply supporting interpretation for another object, a single £1 million note. The exhibit explains that these notes are solely for transporting large sums internally in the bank, and then uses the same value in £20 denominations to visually depict the practicalities of doing so. This is great. It reveals an interesting internal practice of the bank, as is one of the museums aims, and then perfectly interprets the object to help the visitor understand why, in a striking and memorable way.

 

This purposeful and effective second display however further highlights the elephant in the room that is the first exhibited million. For all of my pondering I still struggle to see what the point of it is. But then, maybe it is in this pondering that it finally finds a purpose. The key to all great museum exhibits is an ability to capture the imagination of the visitor not only during, but to encourage a sustained engagement with it subsequent to, and if possible, prior to their visit. The £1 million cash at the Museum on the Mound has unquestionably achieved this with me, quite possibly to a greater extent than any object before it.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 6.10.2015