July 22, 2005

The modernising of Britain’s museums

Posted at 5:17 pm in British Museum

The British Government recently produced a report, that amongst other things highlighted how a large proportion of the collections of many museums in Britain is hidden from the public. The report also suggests that museum’s should be more willing to lend items from their collections to other museums.
This article looks at how some museums are choosing to deal with the overcrowding problems by making their entire collection more accessible.

Haaretz (Israel)

Fri., July 22, 2005 Tamuz 15, 5765
Israel Time: 02:50 (EST+7)
Underground art
By David Rapp

One of Britain’s most important art collections had a rather sweet beginning, even if today’s reductive economic perspective might prompt some observers to see its story as being mainly about money. In the middle of the 19th century, Henry Tate went into the sugar business. A few years later he bought the rights to a revolutionary patent for cutting large chunks of sugar into small cubes. The sugar cubes made Tate a rich man, and he could soon afford to leave Liverpool and settle in London. Among his other investments, Tate cultivated an art collection, mainly of contemporary paintings. Having first displayed the collection in his spacious London home, he proposed toward the end of his life to leave it to the nation. To his surprise, the response he received hinted that the national collection was already full enough without his 65 works.

Tate decided to build a special gallery for British art; it opened in 1897, two years before his death. At first the gallery exhibited Tate’s own collection, including “Ophelia,” an oil painting by John Everett Millais. Since then the collection has swelled to mammoth proportions, now comprising a total of 65,000 works, including 64 by Millais. Over the years, the Tate Gallery was divided into four separate museums, and still only a fraction of its holdings can be exhibited, leaving most of them permanently stored in large preservation spaces. The collection is used for research; it forms a reservoir of works for alternating exhibitions; and, of course, it constitutes a broad database, a kind of “cultural gene pool” that future generations are supposed to put to better use.

The collection iceberg

Museums in general, and art museums in particular, have in the last decades operated under several axioms. One of the most important is the sanctity of “the collection,” a hoard of works the museum should always seek to enlarge. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is presumed to have 2 million cataloged objects stored in its warehouses. The British Museum in London boasts some 7 million (about 75,000 of them on public display). The central role of donations in creating these collections adds to the sense of awe. Once an individual has bequeathed his or her treasures to a museum, it is agreed that the museum must assume responsibility for their upkeep forever.

The fact that only a tiny part of museum collections can ever be exhibited is justified by another argument: that the existence of the collection is “an end in itself” – for posterity, of course. A self-respecting museum will therefore never sell off pieces except under rare circumstances. As a result, the zealous maintenance of the collection is the first concern of many such institutions, pushing the interested public down the list of priorities. Exhibitions are only the tip of the collection iceberg, which is maintained, at enormous cost, below ground and under appropriate conditions. Many museum directors feel that the collections they oversee keep getting bigger, at the expense of other activities.

But even people aware of this discontent and of the mammoth budgets allocated to collections must have been surprised by a special report on the subject that appeared in Britain a month ago. The report sums up 18 months of work by a special committee of the British Museum Association. Even before reading its 36 pages, the title – “Collections for the Future” – signals to members of the old school that certain long-standing axioms are losing their hold. The authors are not convinced that keeping millions of works of art in the basement for posterity’s sake is the best course of action. Preservation, they proclaim, is not a sufficient role for the modern museum. To come up with ways to increase the exposure of the collections, the committee has examined alternatives to traditional exhibitions in museum display areas. These include organized access to museum storage facilities and the creation of exhibition venues outside the museum, where a wide range of artwork might be displayed under appropriate conditions and professional guidance.

Another way to reach a broader public is by encouraging museums to lend their artwork to each other. The report states that this practice is not put to sufficient use in Britain: Museums too rarely lend works among themselves and to other institutions. In fact, high-quality art rarely appears outside the major cities. With hundreds of thousands of works hidden away in storage, this state of affairs cannot be tolerated. Museums are asked to consider lending their possessions to galleries and even to establishments that are not, by definition, intended for this kind of display.

A successful example of this kind has been conducted in the last years by Britain’s Reading Museum, whose display halls feature barely 1 percent of the 500,000 items in its collection. Another 20,000 artifacts have been divided by the museum staff into 1,500 “themed” boxes. The boxes are brought to schools for activities the museum organizes jointly with educators. The exposure might jeopardize the survival of the artifacts, but hundreds of thousands of others will remain stored as usual at the museum.

Digital exposure

Another way of increasing art’s public exposure is the use of digital media, whether by putting the works online or by documenting them on CDs. Most of the Tate’s collection is already available on the gallery’s Internet site, the most widely viewed art Web site in Britain.

In interviews they gave after the report was published, members of the committee hinted that there was room to consider sanctions against museum directors whose collections were not displayed frequently enough. One suggestion, a rather simplistic one, is that a work that has not been displayed for 10 straight years should be removed from the museum’s possession and transferred to an institution that will put it to better use. This proposal is an unnecessary attempt to apply economic models to the world of museology. The authors of the report are well aware, for example, that Britain’s Natural History Museum holds over 70 million artifacts, whose importance lies in the comprehensive database they comprise. Not every one of the Tate Gallery’s William Turner paintings must necessarily be displayed to the public every decade, while it is important that the gallery’s comprehensive collection remain intact, if only for research purposes.

The proposal to bring sanctions against museums that neglect refreshing their public exhibitions is mainly intended to shock museum directors into awareness. This might have been accomplished simply by launching the debate, prompting museums to take initiative themselves and to bring out works from their collections. “Museums cannot keep spending public resources caring for objects that will never be enjoyed or used,” the report declares. “Making decisions about disposal is part of a museum’s professional and ethical responsibility. Disposal is not risk-free, but neither is unthinking retention.” The sweeping view that it is unethical to sell off pieces of a collection is gradually dissolving. Over the years, Europe has come to dread the emergence of an American model, in which museum holdings are “traded” to pay for other works or for the improvement of the museum premises. The drawbacks of this model – which is not very popular, even in America – are inculcated through cautionary tales about institutions that “dumped” unpopular works, only to regret it bitterly later. Another, more substantial fear is that private collectors are actually behind the idea of encouraging museums to sell.

There were indeed some attempts to change the collection preservation policies of British museums a few years back, but it would be wrong to reject the whole debate on their account. In any case, the report and its recommendations should also be closely studied by Israel’s many museums, which have extensive basements of their own.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URL

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away