Duties and Charges

crowds around Rosetta Stone, British Museum - image © Stephanie Pearson

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone, British Museum – image © Stephanie Pearson

A little over a year ago I attended the first in a series of “Museum of the Future” debates at the British Museum. The theme of this particular event was accessibility and how the institution could make changes to its operations in order to cope with its increasing visitor traffic. As you would expect from a public forum, there were good ideas and terrible ones too, and it is interesting to see that both the best and worst of those tabled at the event have come to prominence in recent weeks.

The best idea was undoubtedly that the British Museum needs a bigger entrance. Its current size presents the dual negatives of being both impractically small for the sheer volume of visitors who pass through it, but it is also distinctly unwelcoming when viewed from the gates of its main entrance on Great Russell Street. I suggested at the time that creating new entranceways would negate the aura of privacy created by small doors atop grand flights of stairs, as IM Pei’s pyramid has done at Paris’ Louvre, and by the 2011 refurbishment of the National Museum of Scotland. The British Museum is reportedly considering widening its existing two-metre front door in order to improve visitor flow, which may do little still to increase the sense of “welcome” portrayed by its problematic entrance but it’s an improvement none the less.

Speaking of welcome, a consideration that certainly isn’t is the idea proposed by one member of the audience at the debate that the museum could increase its income by charging “foreign visitors” to enter. This was rightly met with groans of derision at the time so it is surprising to see it now being discussed. To be more specific, the British Museum is considering levying a charge for the admission of commercial tour groups. As annoying as they can often be, standing around looking confused with their matching caps and selfies sticks, this is discriminatory and unacceptable.

Despite its name, the British Museum is, in its own words, “a museum of the world, for the world.” So to charge some of the world and not the other is unfair. I appreciate the grievance that these tour operators in London are profiting from their free service however any charge to the companies will be passed onto their customers, creating an indirect entry fee which is not permissible. If tourists want to pay someone not to tell them how simple it is to get the Tube to Tottenham Court Road and walk around the corner, more fool them.

The continued diversity of the British Museum’s collection is also largely predicated on the fact that it is exhibited for free. Take the high profile Parthenon Marbles for example. One of the museums key counter-arguments in the repatriation debate is that the objects are part of the greater heritage of all civilisation, not just Greece, and they are more ethically placed in an institution that is easier to visit and won’t charge visitors to see them. Having already surrendered the argument that the marbles cannot be moved by loaning the statue of Ilissos to The Hermitage in St Petersburg earlier this year, you would imagine they’d be keen not to surrender a further, and more legitimate claim to their retention.

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian’s answer to an arts Jeremy Clarkson goes further, stating he believes that, “tourists should be giving the British Museum money, and so should the rest of us.” He believes UK museums should be striving to emulate their fee-charging counterparts in France and Spain, not the other way around. He is wrong though. Museums are struggling financially due to government cuts which could see many lose as much as 40% of their funding, not because people aren’t paying for tickets. Free culture is not only desirable, the MoMA’s PS1 in New York for example has recently used a grant from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation to waive entrance fees to citizens for a full year, but free culture also works.

Glasgow is great example. Currently playing host to the 2015 Turner Prize, the eyes of many in the art world will be in and on the city at a time when a commitment to the arts made during its European City of Culture year in 1990 is really coming to fruition. Glasgow now boasts a world-class civic museum service offering nine different free museums and galleries. Investment in these services was predicated on a trickle-down service economy that would rejuvenate a city struggling socially and economically with its post-industrial status. Take Finnieston for example, it is not by chance that the Kelvingrove Museum’s 2006 refurbishment coincided with what was the beginning of a blossoming bar and restaurant scene. One that has gone on to provide a leisure infrastructure capable of meeting the demands of The Hydro arena and cemented the area as Glasgow’s chief entertainment destination.

While the museum cannot take all of the credit for this, along with the Museum of Transport (then still residing at Kelvin Hall) it provided a cultural spine upon which to flesh out the skeletal area with the “cappuccino economy” City of Culture 1990 had aimed to provide by driving visitors into it. Look at any of the other Glasgow postcodes experiencing similar rejuvenations and you will find cultural institutions close by; Partick and Dumbarton Road served by the new Riverside Museum, Dennistoun in walking distance from the People’s Palace and St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Art and Life, and the Tramway Gallery and Burrell Collection in Shawlands.

Most observable of all however is that all of these venues are free, to everyone, and they always should be. The public funding which has kept them so has helped improve these parts of the city for residents and visitors alike. The cut-happy government should recognise this. Diverting the public money that keeps museums free out of the sector and then forcing them to recoup it through entry fees actually costs people more. Individuals like Jonathan Jones would be wise to remember that it is museums who should be charged with bettering peoples lives, not the public for the privilege.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 10.11.2015

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

MotM Advert

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

Red Flags in Museums

Confederate display

 

“The flag belongs in a museum, not on our streets.” This is the sound bite du jour in current American politics, with Barrack Obama and Jeb Bush among others all claiming in the wake of the Charleston massacre that the Confederate Flag, which flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, should be taken down and transferred to a heritage institution in order to remove it from the contemporary and cement it in the past where it belongs. I have however seen several media responses to this that claim the flag has no right to such reverential treatment; that the flag does not belong within the collections let alone on display within a museum.

 

This of course is not true, a museum collection’s objects are deemed “worthy” by the assertion that people can learn from them, not through a perceived affiliation with “good or bad.” As a compassionate and humane individual living in Glasgow, I am all too often sickened by the banner-waving fanfare of the Orange Order. Yet should a time hopefully come when their antiquated iconography can be retired, it is imperative that some of it should be sent to a museum where it can help teach the values of an inclusive society through addressing the uglier elements of the past. The Confederate Flag should now serve a similar purpose.

 

Most of the objections to the suggested accession of the flag by a South Carolina museum tend to stem from the view that its display would entail some form of celebratory act, and that by accepting it as physical heritage, the ideology it represents will become “accepted” heritage as well. The flag is not the same as other morally dubious historical artefacts though; Adolf Hitler’s paintings for example, which have little value as political or social history sources, nor have a relevant position in the art history canon. They have no lessons to teach, whereas the Confederate Flag does.

 

It cannot teach those lessons if its message is censored however, and no museum should exhibit like that anyway. Exhibiting the dark elements of human history is not an acceptance of the values of the time. The Museum of Slavery does not champion the use of a coffle through their display, nor do the jars or hair and teeth at Auchwitz endorse the atrocities that occurred there. These objects are important museum pieces because they provide a physical dimension to history that cannot ever be forgotten. Physical reminders are important for future generations to literally show them of the realities of the past, helping to instil within them a morality that will not permit similar actions in the future.

 

The Confederate Flag is not a new problem for museums however. Perhaps most notable is the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, which is housed at Battle Abbey, a former monument to the Confederate Movement of the American Civil War. For many years they were troubled by what to do with the great murals of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, which they inherited along with the sight. Historical artefacts and great artworks in their own right, but bearing an explicit sentiment not in keeping with the institution or the society it is part of. Additionally, the museum came under fire from parts of its community for the decision to remove the Confederate Flag from its exterior, having flown there for 131 years. The flag, a tradition and again a historical artefact, gave the museum no option however other than censorship due to it’s “connotations of white heroism and black docility.”

 

To fly a flag however does suggest a compliance with its message, whereas to hang the flag in a museum does not. This is why the murals at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art can be displayed, but the flag has never again been run up the pole outside. A flag flown is a triumphant thing, and throughout history has often been the greatest statement a group of people can make. In a museum however, a flag can be contextualised amongst other objects, and its history can be interpreted appropriately. It is reduced from a statement, to simply an object.

 

However, to reduce the Confederate Flag as such may be more challenging for example than the Nazi Swastika. While there is very little public approval of Nazism now, the Confederate Flag is still widely admired in certain areas of America, and the views that it represents are unfortunately still a problem. An article on Slate.com declares that it is too risky to even hang the flag in a museum because institutions are not yet fully nor demonstrably equipped to tackle the difficult issue of race, far less to surgically remove an active support from something like the Confederate Flag, so deeply ingrained in much of the South Carolina community.

 

I believe however that these are the challenges museums should be tackling head on. An institution should not exist in fear of discussing an issue because they worry doing so will shed an undeserving light on it, or spread the existence of a message that is unacceptable. Museums should be confident that through effective exhibiting they could alter that message to one of social acceptance and inclusivity. In a more peaceful future I would hope to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan memorialised, and as part of that, I hope the actions of the Taliban in destroying them will be properly addressed, rather than masked to protect potentially impressionable visitors from an awareness of their extremist ideas. Here in Glasgow, if the marches of the Orange Order were to be rightly banned today, as they have been elsewhere for decades, I too would like to see their history effectively tackled by a museum despite the fact that the protestant supremacist views that they represent would remain a present concern. Taking down a flag does not fix a problem, but a well-presented discourse and education such as a museum provides, can. America has the chance to do this with the Confederate Flag now, and I hope they lead the way in doing so.

Grey Areas

alchemy-1947(2)

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has recently opened a new temporary exhibition based around their Jackson Pollock masterpiece Alchemy, and the intensive 18-month conservation it has just returned from to remove nearly 70 years worth of dust from its surface which, remarkably, is still yet to fully dry.

Divided into two rooms, the exhibition displays the work itself in one, and the science and theory behind this ground-breaking conservation and some historical interpretation of the work, Pollock himself, and his relationship with Peggy Guggenheim in the other. This information is conveyed through a series of videos, touchscreens and ephemera from Pollock’s Hamptons studio, such as paint cans and his mother’s old quilting frame, which he used to mount his canvases on the floor while conducting his famous “drip painting” technique. Perhaps most interestingly though, the exhibition contains a 1:1 scale 3D printed reproduction of Alchemy that visitors are invited to touch in order to explore the vastly textured surface of the painting.

Alchemy 3D

The rationale behind interpretive features like this are plainly obvious, everybody wants to touch things in museums. I’ve been at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for three months now and I see this phenomenon first hand every day. The difference with Alchemy however is that its “poured paint” three dimensional surface at least would provide a satisfying tactile experience. This is not limited solely to appeasing the ignorant fingers of visitors however. Museums have long known that education functions more successfully when multi-sensory learning is able to take place. This is why museums have long striven to find ways in which they can permit visitors to touch things within exhibition displays, and to varying degrees of success.

At the Museo Correr in Piazza San Marco I spent some time recently fiddling with a complicated “augmented reality” exhibit that required you to hold a white disc in front of a camera that would then show you an onscreen image in which said disc was replaced in your hands by the Capsella di Samagher, an ivory Roman Reliquary from 5 AD, which is displayed in a cabinet behind. The exhibit is disheartening though as it is obviously expensive and takes up a lot of space in a venue that has little to spare, and it is entirely ineffectual. I wasn’t having a tactile experience of the object, I was having one of a white cardboard disc. On top of that, I was no longer looking at the object itself, but at a computer generated onscreen version of it that in actuality looked nothing like the real thing. It also took me at least 5 minutes of fumbling to work out how to reach this disappointing conclusion.

IMG_8565 IMG_8567

3D printing is far more satisfying. While the materials and colours cannot be replicated yet, the shapes and textures certainly can. Nor do the advantages of 3D printing stop there. Jack Shoulder wrote an interesting piece last year about its implementation at the Grant Museum, where the bones and skeletal displays exhibited are accompanied by miniature 3D printed replicas of the creatures they once belonged to in order to help the visitor contextualise what they are being shown.

The idea of 3D printed replicas of exhibits as interpretive materials however was first brought to my attention at the second “Museum of the Future” debate at the British Museum last October. The idea was generally disregarded however but the reasoning for this was due to the gentleman following up his point with the alarming suggestion that visitors should be allowed to print off the exhibits they liked the most and then take them home with them.

In its current manifestation 3D printing does not pose much of a counterfeiting threat. I have no desire for example to take the ugly grey 3D Alchemy from the second room at the museum home and hang it on my wall, nor would I be able to successfully punt it through some dodgy backdoor art market. But technology is a vivacious beast and who are we to doubt that in the future such reproductions may not be possible? Alchemy of course will always be tricky as printing cigarette butts and sand is still realistically a long way off, but there are many valuable objects in museums across the world whose compositions are less complex. The ability to furnish 3D print outs with colour is something we must assume is being investigated, so the possibility of a Rosetta “Stone-effect” replica at some point is not such a ludicrous idea.

You could also argue that a 3D printer will never be able to replicate the artistic process, which is fair enough. The process of creating the artwork can often be what is of most interest when viewing the final piece. However, what if the interest in the piece lies only in financial gain? Artists and artworks have been fraudulently replicated, and even created for years. Sculpture for example will be incredibly susceptible to forgery via 3D printing in the future. Museums and galleries across the world are filled with statuary of questionable provenance due to the failure of artists to break their moulds after the initial production. Nowadays all it would take is a 3D scanner to digitally recreate the mould for any sculpture one desired, which if leaked to the online community could potentially lead to the “looting” of entire collections.

I am all for making collections digitally available however. The work of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for example, and increasingly in other institutions across the world to make their collections viewable either through their own websites or initiatives such as the Google Art Project is a tremendous development. The advent of 3D printing however poses some serious questions as to the extent to which this should be done. Is there a line that can or should be drawn as to the extent to which collections can still be shared digitally, as they should be, without putting them in the grey areas of jeopardy created by technological developments such as 3D printing?

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.

An Eye for an Eye?

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I wrote briefly within another post a few weeks ago regarding my dismay over the proposed sale of the ancient Egyptian Statue of Sekhemka by Northampton Borough Council from its civic collection (which it holds in trust for its people), in order to fund an extension to the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. You can read the reasons why I found the actions of said council abhorrent, here. Sadly that sale did indeed occur at Christies Auction House on the 10th of July, and the statue passed into the hands of a private collector in exchange for a fee in the area of £16m.

 

As a repercussion of this, the Arts Council England (ACE) met last week to review the Accreditation status of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, the result of which was revealed today. The decision that ACE have come to is to revoke Accreditation from the Northampton Museum Service, meaning the Abington Park Museum will also be punished for the actions of its governing body.

 

The question I find myself asking however, is who has really been punished here? The sale of the statue in the first place profited only Northampton Borough Council, and a single local Lord, while the public was robbed of their heritage and any future opportunities to engage with it. Now, the Northampton Museum Service has been punished for this, but their “service” is to the people of Northampton, not the councilors who approved the sale. The result is that this again only punishes the people, rather than those responsible.

 

Loss of Accreditation means that Northampton Museum and Gallery, and Abington Park Museum are now ineligible for public funding from ACE themselves and bodies such as the National Lottery. Both of these museums have received funding from these areas in the past. Northampton Council leader David Mackintosh, one of the key protagonists in the Sekhemka sale, believes that this will be of no hindrance to securing the remaining necessary funding for his proposed extension from private investors. However he makes no mention of his Museum Service’s future programming. They have in the past relied on public funding that they now cannot, and it would be naïve in my opinion to expect private entities to consider donating money to an organisation that has so flagrantly ignored its own Code of Ethics.

 

So if these two Northampton museums are unable to fund new exhibitions, it is the public who will have lost out, again. The sale of the statue robbed the people of their history. The statue being revealed as the property of a private collector robbed the people of any hope of having that history returned to them. Now, the people could potentially be robbed of the ability to engage with the history they have left. The museums certainly won’t close, they’ve just had a cash injection after all, but if they cannot fund new exhibitions and initiatives for public engagement then interest in them will certainly dwindle. You cannot expect repeat visits if nothing ever changes.

 

I appreciate that action had to be taken. I only wish that there were a way to do so that ensured those responsible had to account for their actions. The unfortunate truth is that David Mackintosh and his council have not acted illegally, only dangerously unethically, and no matter how they try to spin it, completely outwith the best interests of their public. I understand that ACE have deemed the loss of Accreditation necessary and I also understand why the move has been supported by the Museums Association, I just however worry that this punishment will only affect those already afflicted by what has been, as the Save Sekhemka Action Group have called, “a black and shameful” saga. Could an avenue not have been explored that helped support Northampton Museum and Art Gallery’s already weakened position, and targeted those who have so shamefully tarnished its name for financial gain?

 

Museum services and their funding bodies should always endeavour to act in the best interests of museums. For me, an eye for an eye in this case was not a desirable method of punishment. The people lost an eye when the statue was sold. Now, as punishment for this, future Northampton Museum Service programming may be in jeopardy, and it is the people again who risk losing their other eye. Soon they may have nothing left to see.

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.