What’s In-Store, Glasgow?

Kelvin Hall - image © Page\Park Architects

Kelvin Hall – image © Page\Park Architects

While the atmosphere in museum circles prior to George Osborne’s budget last week was tinged with a distinct air of impending doom, one which is unlikely to have alleviated in smaller regional museums, there was at least some good news. The decision to retain free entry to national museums undoubtedly was the most important, however the most intriguing was a further commitment to public access to some of the UK’s finest collections. In his statement, Osborne pledged £150 million to allow for the construction of a new state-of-the-art storage facility to rehome the hidden collections of the British Museum, Science Museum and V&A. This will not only improve conditions for the objects, but for people too, providing the public with access to their national treasures without having to wait patiently for an exhibition to reveal them.

 

In Scotland we are ahead of this game already. The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC) has been operating for several years now, allowing the public to make appointments at their leisure to view its collections, and the National Museum of Scotland opened a similar site in Edinburgh this year. There are some who argue that accessible storage is not the answer however, and that national museums should improve the visibility of stored treasures by loaning them to smaller museums in need of fresh attractions. Steven Parissien for example, director of Warwickshire’s Compton Verney gallery this week accused London’s national museums of “cultural colonialism” in their hoarding of stored masterpieces.

Visitors at GMRC - image © Glasgow Life

Visitors at GMRC – image © Glasgow Life

There are few who would refute the argument that a loaning of these objects to smaller institutions would be desirable but the reality is that this is not always possible. Some museum objects are stored rather than publicly displayed because they have stringent conservational requirements, while some others are set aside as research material. In some cases objects can be caught up in red tape making them ineligible for display. Glasgow’s Burrell Collection for example was famously trapped in storage purgatory for 39 years due to William Burrell’s problematic bequest that his treasures be given to the people of the city, but couldn’t be displayed within it.

 

The chief reason larger museum services have so much in storage however is that the collections are simply that vast. Glasgow’s flagship museum Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, even with its cavernous interiors and “salon-hangs,” can only host 8,000 of the 1 million objects in the city’s public collections. Even with a further eight museums across the city exhibiting from the same resource pool, less than 1% of this collection is on display outside of the GMRC. Glasgow Museums could fill all the smaller museums in its vicinity and its need for storage would remain unchanged.

 

This is why the Kelvin Hall Project is so exciting. Set to open in the summer next year, “Phase 1” of the initiative will see the historic venue re-open as a “centre for cultural excellence,” housing publicly accessible collections for The Hunterian, Glasgow Museums (from remaining non-GMRC stores) and The National Library of Scotland, alongside extensive teaching facilities. Additionally, the site will feature areas for objects to be conserved in public view, beginning with the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed suite from Mrs Cranton’s Ingram Street Tearooms.

 

Belgium’s Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp is one institution that has mastered the idea of accessible storage. Opened to the public in 2011, the galleries and storerooms are housed in the same building, with visitors free to transition between both at their leisure. The storerooms function in essence like an extension of the museum, with everything made visible, merely without the flair or interpretation of that which is officially exhibited. This gives visitors a unique opportunity to really engage with the artworks or themes that inspire them by allowing them to immediately discover similar or related objects. In addition to this, the storeroom also seeks to educate visitors about conservation and its other primary functions.

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom - image © Filip Dujardin

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom – image © Filip Dujardin

Kelvin Hall will share many of Museum aan de Stroom’s attributes. Its public conservations and easy-to-access objects being key, but it is its location that is most desirable. While the GMRC is a little out of the way, Kelvin Hall is directly across the street from Kelvingrove, and following the completion of “Phase 2” of the project, will also house the exhibited collection of The Hunterian (currently displayed across Glasgow University). Following this, The Hunterian would have the ability to emulate Museum aan de Stroom entirely, with only one set of traffic lights preventing Kelvingrove from doing likewise.

 

It is in this period between Phase 1 and 2 of the Kelvin Hall Project that I often worry about public perception of what it actually is. Making the collections accessible is one thing, getting the public to understand the endeavour is another. While an incredible resource in its own right, prior to the completion of Phase 2, Kelvin Hall will function best as an incredible supplement to Kelvingrove Museum, and I hope the public appreciate this; my message to them when it opens next year is simply, use it. Few museums in the world can offer so much of their collections in one place like that; I very much doubt Osborne’s new storage centre in London will be particularly close to its national museums (which are already half an hour from each other). Those stores will make hidden treasures visible if you make time to seek them out, Kelvin Hall meanwhile, will have brought them to you.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 01.12.2015

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SMF Blog: A Modern Desensitisation

© National Museums Scotland

image © National Museums Scotland

This article was originally written for the Scottish Museums Federation blog.

Standing engulfed by the spectacular display of faces and landscapes at the National Museum of Scotland’s Photography: A Victorian Sensation, I am struck by a sensation of my own. Not since I deleted my Instagram account, now two new years resolutions ago, have I been party to such an intensive timeline of portraiture. However there are no filters or fancy effects here. For many of these people this was the only photograph of them ever taken, and as such they have been treasured and cared for by their owners to the point where they have made it into the collection of a museum over a hundred years later. This is why the inevitable, “your selfies displayed here” interactive at the end of the exhibition actually sits a little uncomfortably. After marvelling at a century’s worth of lovingly preserved photography, I was then expected to take one of myself and then exit through the door to the left, never to see it again.

Of course this is a little different, I know for a fact that this is not the only photograph of myself in existence, however it entices you to consider what the eventual fate of those may be too. The last thing you see before leaving the exhibition is a text panel that reads, “More photographs are taken in two minutes today than were taken in the whole of the 19th century.” By this point you have seen hundreds of non-stock, non-commercial, personal photography from this period, but will such a feat be possible another 150 years from now?

The modern photograph has mutated into a very temporary possession. Photographs these days are lost all the time. These can be unexpectedly through computer hardware malfunctions or intentionally, such as self-destructing Snapchat images or, for example, purposefully deleted for certain emotional reasons. The latter is not a new phenomenon however, a fellow student while I was studying for my masters degree once revealed his unusual hobby of collecting old daguerreotypes where people’s faces had been scratched off. Despite their defacement, the continued physical existence of these photographs actually makes them doubly intriguing as artefacts. I was always taught to analyse historical source material using the “Five W’s” method; “what is it and when was it created?” “who created it and why did they do so?” and “what does it say?” My colleague’s collection however had the benefit of possessing a 6th required “W”: “woah, what on earth happened next?”

The suggestion here of course is not that we retain every single one of the millions of photographs that are taken every minute of the day, nor that instead of deleting pictures of undesirable people that we aggressively scribble over their faces in MS Paint. It is simply that we take better care to preserve the important images. From the 50 or so years worth of portrait photographs at the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition you can learn a lot. For example, for many subjects this was a rare opportunity to be pictured, and the image of themselves they have allowed to be captured provides us with a fascinating insight into the evolving ideals of fashion, manners and etiquette of the time. Nowadays with fashion moving so quickly and the ability to take photos all the time, that “selfie” of someone in last months “get-up” just gets deleted and replaced, meaning future viewers will have no real sense of a community’s changing attitudes to trends on the social level that we can examine in our 19th and 20th century counterparts.

Photography: A Victorian Sensation claims that in 2015 an average of 70 million photographs are uploaded to Instagram every single day, and one would assume the proportion of this that includes portraits and “selfies” is quite high, most of which are destined merely to tumble endlessly down a timeline into forgottenness. A little down the road at the Scottish National Gallery, the David Bailey retrospective Stardust, provides no greater proof that quality trumps quantity every time. Not only are his images iconic, some of them, of Jack Nicholson and a young Johnny Depp for example, are some of the most iconic photos of those individuals. These are portraits that are valued, were treasured, and are enriching to the viewer because of it.

In fairness, the fame of the photographer and his subject make these portraits exponentially valuable, however there are more than just famous faces on show at Stardust. The exhibition displays work from his travels in places like Nagaland, Sudan and Papua New Guinea. In these pictures there are no recognisable figures, simply people, who like those on display at the National Museum of Scotland, may well be experiencing being photographed for their first or only time. Now, regardless of the name behind the camera, you have portraits worth treasuring because they are valuable historical sources, with much to teach the world about other countries, their customs and often their plights.

To describe the “your selfies displayed here” section of Photography: A Victorian Sensation as “uncomfortable” was not a criticism, it is important for museums to provide thought-provoking content. This is what it provided for me. You truly feel when exploring the exhibition that photography in the late 19th century was a sensation, and people valued their pictures to the point where they were framed in lockets, crafted into jewellery or displayed in elaborate albums. But most importantly, they were simply preserved. We live in an age now where people are desensitised to the value of photographs. In Photography: A Victorian Sensation, the National Museum of Scotland has curated the memories of an entire generation. Additionally though, they also inspire a concern that our current, increasingly self-conscious generation has such a wealth of means to curate its own memory to reflect its present concerns, that it could deprive future generations of any genuine sense of its past.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 28.9.2015

Sticks in the Mud

bluesteel

There seems to be a lot discussion in museum circles of late regarding the infamous “selfie stick,” likely due to the wake of “Museum Selfie Day” and the news trickling in that sensible institutions such as the Louvre have started to ban them. Now, the Museums Association is running a poll asking its membership their opinion on the issue of whether UK venues should follow suit, or stick with the insufferable contraptions, deliciously referred to by Gawker recently as the “wand of idiocy.” I’m sure you have worked out by now which side of the fence I’m on.

 

This is no fresh grievance for me however. I am fortunate enough to be working in Venice at the moment where there are now more “selfie sticks” than there is water. Every day I run the gauntlet over Accademia Bridge between two rows of grinning tourists brandishing their baton-mounted phones into its centre at a 65° angle. It’s reminiscent of an enormous guard of honour until you consider the fact nobody in it has eyes for anyone but themselves.

 

The “selfie stick” has been on my mind for a while, and in my face, and I’ve been smacked in the shin with one, and had a drink knocked out of my hand. This is precisely the reason given by Deborah Ziska of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the “narcissi-stick” (thanks, Alyson) has recently been banned; they’re dangerous. They’re dangerous to people, and dangerous to the displays. When you take a step back to consider it, the “selfie stick” is essentially a retractable golf club, and nobody complains about not being allowed to bring them to a museum. Obviously I appreciate that nobody is coming into a museum and swinging them around, intentionally. But when your entire attention is focussed on the end of a 5-foot pole, and what’s at the end of said pole is a reverse image of yourself, you cannot possibly have any awareness or comprehension for the people or objects in your surroundings. You are literally brandishing it into the unknown. This is the point where you become a danger, and not just to other people, but yourself as well. As Ziska rightly points out, her gallery is filled with low balconies and stairs to topple over as you unwittingly shuffle around in search of the perfect angle.

 

To further the argument, there is no justification that necessitates their use in a museum environment anyway. People have tried though. One reason I’ve heard is, “you can fit more into the background.” Yes you can, but if that is your chief concern then you’re taking the wrong kind of photograph. If somebody wants, for example, a photo memory of the time they saw Picasso’s The Poet, they’ll remember it better if they don’t insist on obscuring half of it with their face. If they are more interested in remembering what they looked like that day than the art, why pay €14 to go to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection when there’s a boutique home furnishings shop around the corner selling mirrors for the same price?

 

I have also heard, “it’s safer, I don’t have to give a stranger my phone.” True again, but who is going to run off with your camera in the middle of a museum? Even in the street you have a better chance of retaining it by singling out one person to entrust it to than precariously strapping it to a shiny pole and waving it around in a sea of people. The fact of the matter is, the pole gives people greater control over their appearance in the picture. It’s not “I don’t trust you not to steal my phone,” it’s “I don’t trust you to make me look good.”

 

The “selfie stick” gives the photographer complete control, and perhaps most importantly of all, it can give the photograph the illusion of not being a “selfie” at all, by de-necessitating that “slightly too close to the lens and my arm is growing out of my chest” camera angle. “Selfies” are vain and people don’t like to admit to that. You can tell this is the case because some people still at least have the humility to look slightly embarrassed after taking one in public, some people. There is nowhere to hide if you’ve been waving a “selfie stick” around however, but this no longer matters as those who use them have demonstrably ceased to care about the opinions of those in their vicinity.

 

The reality is that the oxymoronically named “selfie” is not for the benefit of the subject at all, but for their connections everywhere else, chiefly those on social media sites. This is why museum people have embraced them. We like to “see” people in museums, and we like that people feel like their visit is one of these “show off” moments that they want to add to the rose tinted timeline of life experiences that they have chosen to share online. That’s as good as it gets though. There’s a reason we have “Museum Selfie Day” and not “Share Pictures of Your Favourite Exhibits Day.” People more and more are insistent on being the subject of the photos they take, and everything else, such as the museum, is secondary.

 

Essentially every “selfie” is the same, except the backgrounds change from time to time, like the “Blue Steel” calendar in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (see the above photo). A “selfie” is not a memory, it’s a momentary snapshot that is discarded from the photographers conscience as soon as a fresh one is taken, or in the case of Snapchat, discarded from existence after a mere few hours (more on that here). In a museum we can embrace the “selfie” as, despite being the secondary content, we can still benefit from their exposure. The “selfie stick” however only benefits the “selfie taker,” and in fact adversely affects the museum by endangering its collection and the other visitors.

 

I’m sure one day the “wand of vanity” will have a rightful place in a museum, presumably as a key piece in the British Museum’s “A History of the End of the World in 100 Objects,” presented by a robot Neil MacGregor in the year 2110. For now however it does not. The “selfie stick” hazardously facilitates a form of photography that increasingly has no appreciation for memory, for history, for art or any aesthetic external to ones own appearance. They do not therefore belong in museums and those that have banned them already have done so quite rightly. Sometimes it’s good to be a stick in the mud.

Of Holes and Collective Wholes

corv

When I first read about it earlier this year, it struck me as being both tragic and wonderfully intriguing in equal measure. In the early hours of the 2nd of February 2014, an enormous sinkhole appeared in the middle of Bowling Green, Kentucky’s National Corvette Museum (NCM), collapsing a large area of the gallery floor and swallowing up eight of its prized racing cars. Last week, the museum directors have finally made the decision that the enormous geographical fault must be filled in. I was not sure how I felt about this development however, and I wondered if by filling the sinkhole, the museum is deaccessioning one of its greatest exhibits, leaving them with a new hole, one in their collection, that they may never be able to remedy.

 

Whilst obviously being a scene of massive devastation, the sinkhole in actuality has proven to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise for the museum. A shrewd business move from the directors, likely in part fuelled by an unwillingness to close during its 20th anniversary year, saw the museum reopen the very next day, to massive spikes in attendance and interest. Since the hole appeared, the NCM has seen attendance and revenue increase by nearly 70%, and generated worldwide intrigue with a YouTube video of the hole and the damage it caused totalling over 8 million views to date.

 

The museum has embraced the hole as an important part of its identity, providing a bounty of sinkhole-related merchandise including t-shirts, DVDs, mugs and all the other standard gift shop fare. I have said many times in this blog that a museum experience should always provide the extraordinary, and both the NCM and its visitors immediately recognised the attraction that this particular sight provided.

 

In addition to the sinkholes visible appeal and marketability, there is also a case to be made for its preservation in that it is now a distinct part of the museums twenty-year history. It is a history that is literally ingrained in the fabric of the building and the sinkhole cannot be considered at this point as anything other than a major exhibit, so to fill it in could surely be accused of deaccession?

 

Having said that however, the sinkhole as a historical object has already been compromised. Those who flocked to see the 30 feet deep chasm witnessed a spectacular sight of destruction, what the Wall Street Journal described as a “yawning abyss,” filled with half a million dollars worth of damaged antiquity. That was the real showpiece exhibit. The hole today has been excavated and all eight cars successfully reclaimed from its depths. While still undeniably an impressive sight, it is no longer the same exhibit that caused such fanfare the day after it appeared.

 

In addition to this, the hole in its entirety cannot be preserved. It measures 60 by 40 feet wide and the cost of making it structurally sound places the option well beyond viability. Indeed, the chief reason given by the NCM for not preserving the sinkhole was that their proposal to retain only a small part of it was estimated as being well over a $1 million development. Preserving a tiny portion of the geographical fault would be of little interest to me either though, especially at such cost. The hole with the cars removed has already lost some of its lustre, a mostly filled-in hole, still with no cars has even less.

 

There had been talk at one point of placing one of the mangled sports cars back in as a memorial to the event, however this to me would be another contentious issue. Museum collections are of course preserved for the benefit of the people, and placing one of the wrecks back in the hole would undoubtedly provide a more educational and entertaining experience for the visitor, however the safety of said collection must always be ensured. Of the eight cars that the sinkhole successfully swallowed up, only three are to be repaired to their previous condition. However, to admit an object is beyond repair is not to admit that it is beyond conservation. These tragically mangled cars, despite their condition, remain important historical artefacts.

 

Additionally, one of these cars was a donation to the museum, received only three months prior to the accident. To cast one of the cars back into the hole on account of irreparable damage would show a lack of compassion to the donors who so kindly entrusted their possessions to the museum. The other five remaining damaged cars would be displayed for the public to view elsewhere in the museum, so there is no case that can reasonably be made to single one out to be placed back at the sight of its wreckage, where what remained of it could not be afforded the conservational safety of its counterparts. I am all for museums pushing the envelope, and being creative and exciting with their interpretive methods, but to place any of the cars back in the sinkhole would be inappropriate and unethical.

 

Lastly, there is the issue of whether a sinkhole really has any place within the collection of a Corvette museum anyway. Exhibits earn their place in museum displays through their historical, cultural and social relevance to its audience. The sinkhole admittedly has some of that now, but it did muscle its way in. Needless to say the acquisition of a giant geographical fault would have been far from welcome if you had asked the NCM directors the day before they had one forced upon them. Were the site at Bowling Green home to a natural history museum the sinkhole may have had a case for retention, but an institution dedicated to the display and preservation of automobiles can easily argue against such obligation.

 

It seems filling the hole does indeed make both financial and museological sense. A showpiece exhibit cannot excuse jeopardising the safety of a museum collection; this is why the cars have already been removed. To preserve only part of the sinkhole reduces its spectacle and likely much of its attracting power, meaning the cost of doing so becomes untenable. I praise the directors of NCM for their decisions, both in cashing in on a situation that could easily have caused more damage in the long term than just to eight sports cars, and for making the correct decision last week to bring what was quite possibly one of the greatest temporary exhibitions a museum has ever offered, to an end. My gut reaction to hearing the news was based solely upon envy that I will now never see it in person. But those who have should consider themselves lucky, and should thank the NCM for their audacious curatorial decision.

Appreciating Value

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This week, Northampton Borough Council will place the ancient Egyptian Statue of Sekhemka on sale at Christie’s auction house in London where it is estimated that it could produce a fee of between £4-6 million.  The council is attempting to justify the sale of the statue, which is part of the collection of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, on the basis that the profits will go towards a proposed £14m extension for the institution.  In a further twist, the council intends to share half of the proceeds of the sale with Lord Northampton, whose ancestors donated the statue to the museum.

 

The intention of this blog will always be to embody a positive outlook on museum issues and I have no interest in handing out criticism unless it is productive and contextualized at the very least by some suggestions for change or improvement.  However there is nothing positive to say about this situation, and the only idea I can or will advocate to alter this is for the planned sale to be scrapped.  Northampton Council’s move to deaccession the statue has been roundly criticized, not least by the Egyptian Government and the Museums Association who are refusing to endorse the sale and threatening to revoke Northampton Museum and Gallery’s membership of their organization.

 

My inability to find positives to address in this situation, and the fact that the issue of deaccessioning objects (or rather, not doing so) has been written about so extensively has left me hesitant to discuss this subject at all.  I feel there is nothing more that I can, nor need contribute to the case against Northampton Borough Council’s plan, and the situation has been discussed and reported on a global scale already.  However, it has got me thinking about another issue that is, for me, a little closer to home.

 

For nearly 30 years, the residents of Leith in north Edinburgh have been campaigning the city council for the establishment of their own museum, which would chronicle the rich history of the area and highlight the achievements of some of its most famous sons and daughters (such as colourist J.D. Ferguson and novelist Irvine Welsh).  For around seven years now, councillors and campaigners have been in negotiations with the city’s National Museum of Scotland (NMS) over the procurement of the Leith Custom House (that the institution has been using for storage), to house the Leith Museum inside.  However, in recent weeks the NMS has revealed its intention to place the building on the open market.  They are still providing the city council with first refusal on the building, and I understand negotiations are on-going to reduce the £600,000 asking price.  Should these talks prove fruitless however, the building will potentially be sold into private hands.

 

The Northampton Borough Council has been lambasted for its decision to sell the statue of Sekhemka, and rightly so, yet little has been made of the decision to place Leith Custom House on the market from outwith the Leith Museum campaign group.  The issue here is that the building is being viewed simply as real property, rather than cultural property.  The smorgasbord of architecture, statuary, public art and green spaces in Edinburgh has always made me consider it to be somewhat of a museum in itself.  History pours from round the corners of every winding turn and forms the bricks and mortar of some of the worlds most beautiful buildings.  The through-message during the media reportage of the tragic Glasgow School of Art fire this year was that the famed Mackintosh Building was, “a work of art in its own right,” and the building was considered as much a part of the school’s collection as the work displayed and stored inside.  I have little doubt that the NMS feel the same way about their Royal Museum building on Chambers Street, which has over a century of shared history with both the city and the museum having been their home for over 120 years.  What of Leith Custom House then?  It has over two centuries of shared history with the city, and was designed by none other than Robert Reid, the same architect responsible for designing the façade of Parliament Square and the distinctively beautiful Edinburgh New Town.  Reid’s buildings are etched into the face of the city, they are indicative of its aesthetic and its character, and the Leith Custom House is a shining example of them.

 

The neo-classical Georgian property is clearly a historical artefact in its own right, it’s already a grade-A listed building, as are the Mackintosh and Royal Museum buildings.  For their respective owners to sell them into private hands would be unthinkable, yet for some reason this logic does not apply to Leith Custom House.  The sale of the statue of Sekhemka is reprehensible because a museum collection should be considered invaluable, and should never be considered in terms of its price, only for its historical, artistic and educational worth.  It also deprives the public of a deeper understanding of their history by placing it into the hands of a private collector where it can no longer be freely studied and observed.  Perhaps most importantly, a museum collection cannot risk the possibility of being viewed as a liquid asset.  If Northampton Borough Council can sell objects to fund extensions to the museum, what then prevents people from calling for the sale of objects to fund struggling schools or hospitals?  Where then do you draw a line?  The sale damages the sanctity of museum donation and collections.  Artefacts are given to museums by collectors in trust, for the benefit of the public, strictly for their aesthetic, historical and educational value.  For an institution to profit financially from a donation directly contradicts this, and is presumably why Lord Northampton has demanded he receive half of the share from the sale of his ancestor’s bequeath.

 

The aesthetic, historical and educational value of Leith Custom House to the people of Edinburgh is clear, the fact that the building too was a gift to the museum from Scottish ministers in 2001 makes the NMS desire to place it on the open market even more saddening.  I am not so naïve that I believe all buildings can be treated in the same manner as other museum objects and I certainly do not believe that the museum should be expected to pay tax on and maintain a building they have no use for, solely out of an altruistic ethical concern.  The new NMS storage facility in Granton has rendered the Leith Custom House surplus to their functional requirements, but I would encourage them to endeavour to reappropriate the building in a manner that befits its cultural value.

 

A spokesperson for National Museums Scotland stated last week,

 

As a non-departmental public body and charity, we are obliged to achieve the best value outcome from the disposal and are therefore required to sell the building at market value.”

 

For me, the “best value outcome” would be a Leith Museum in the Leith Custom House.  The building’s historical, aesthetic and educational value vastly outweighs the financial; especially considering the building was a gift in the first place.  If the Leith Museum campaign cannot acquire the necessary funds to put the project in motion then so be it, but I would urge the NMS to allow more time in order to give every chance of facilitating this particular, “best value outcome.”  The motto on the Leith coat of arms reads simply, “Persevere,” and my message to the National Museum of Scotland, City of Edinburgh Council and the campaign for the Leith Museum is simply that, Persevere.