November 4, 2010

Is sharing artefacts the future for museums?

Posted at 2:03 pm in British Museum

Two different people both seem to be advocating that loans of artefacts between museum are the way of the future. in the case of the British Museum however, this is always something that is done very much on their terms – they won’t countenance any sort of longer term loaning. It buys them some sympathy, when they can tell people how much of their collection has been lent out – but in most cases these loans are made for less than a year. MacGregor seems to like the idea of sharing to nearby museums – actually allowing the original owners of the artefacts to see them again in their own country is clearly a more contentious issue however.

The second article sees lending in far more equitable terms – partly as a way of helping museums to deal with an art market inflated by wealthy private collectors.

Museums Association

MacGregor – Museums can be Lending Libraries
Rebecca Atkinson
05/10/2010 international level

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum (BM), has called for national museums to be seen as “lending libraries” from which partner museums can borrow objects to use as they wish.

Speaking at the Museums Association conference, MacGregor discussed the History of the World in 100 Objects collaboration between the BM, the BBC and regional museums.

He described the potential of the BM to be “the national museum of Stornaway to Truro”, and called for museums and collections to be seen as one on a national and international level.

He also revealed that four national museums – Ulster Museum, Nation Museum Scotland, National Museum Wales and the BM – are investigating ways to share their collections across the country.

“Collections no longer need to stay in one place,” MacGregor said. “Museums can be lending libraries, objects can move and can be seen differently and mean very different things to different places.”

Referring to loans such as an Egyptian mummified cat which was lent to Ely Museum by the BM and the York Helmet, lent by York Museum to the BM, MacGregor said different collections and objects from across the UK and even internationally could function as one collection.

He also highlighted the recent example of the Cyrus Cylinder being loaned by the BM to Iran and said it was possible to share resources and share collections, skills and knowledge to create one common world history.

The Art Newspaper

Ownership isn’t everything—The future will be shared
Museums don’t have to own art. We can commission it, or we can borrow and return it. Stewardship is the new normal
By Maxwell Anderson | From issue 216, September 2010. Published online 15 Sep 10 (opinion)

Art museums maintain that the ongoing acquisition of new objects is the crux of their mission, and that all their other activities stem primarily from additions to the permanent collection. But there are three primary reasons to question that orthodoxy today, hinging on ethics, cost, and scarcity.

The first motivation to rethink the traditional collecting paradigm is that ethics now routinely inform deliberations about museum acquisitions. While the swashbuckling antics recounted in Thomas Hoving’s King of the Confessors (1981) once prevailed, entire categories of works of art now demand extraordinary scrutiny, whether sought as acquisitions by purchase, gift, or bequest. These categories include archaeological materials and ancient art, ethnological objects important to the narrative of enduring or long-lost cultures, and works that may be the subject of legitimate ownership claims, such as paintings by old masters, or modern masters with Holocaust-era provenance gaps.

With regard to cost, the escalation of private collecting has increased prices to such an extent that museums are effectively excluded from the market. Museums today do what they can to convince collectors to donate the objects we need. While this strategy worked well in the past, the transfer of great private collections to public institutions can no longer be assumed. Collectors are increasingly choosing to put their holdings up for trade or sale, to memorialise their taste in private museums, or to offer large or long-term loans of objects to museums without guaranteeing their eventual donation.

The third greatest challenge to traditional collecting hinges on scarcity, which is of course connected to mounting cost. The vast majority of masterworks from the Renaissance through the beginning of the modern era are already in public collections. Much modern and contemporary art is colossal in scale, of evanescent materials, or experiential—and inherently uncollectable. And while much digitally-based work is replicable ad infinitum, it is subject to a compact of editions in a quest to assure rarity and therefore value.

Where are we left, if ethics, cost and scarcity are making it more and more difficult for museums to collect art as in the past? I don’t think we are any worse off, provided that we change our language from “collect” to “gather”.

If we gather art for research and display, we don’t have to own it. We can commission it, or we can borrow and return it. Stewardship is the new normal—ownership matters less and less in the increasingly restless worlds of both bits and atoms, as ebooks and timeshares have proved. Museums have to devote the largest part of their budgets to caring for the permanent collection, but the public is increasingly demanding impermanent experiences, such as loan exhibitions, and tires of seeing the same works in the same context year after year. While as museum curators and directors we shake our heads at this dismaying phenomenon, and make pilgrimages to see familiar works in familiar places, that covetousness is becoming quaint. In an era of jet travel, careful packing and shipping, high-quality digital reproductions, and licensing versus buying, the enjoyment of static collections is less important to most people than the enjoyment of works not before seen, or not before seen in combination with other works.

A new premise that gathering art, rather than only owning it, is the best way forward, offers a wide range of related benefits. Among these are the following: a more ethical starting point for safeguarding cultural heritage than the hunt for legal title; the reduced overhead costs of caring for a more selectively growing collection; a more nimble sensibility about what can be successfully presented in acres of galleries heretofore limited to the permanent collection; and greater temporary access to important works than most museums can afford to obtain permanently. Given the challenges of ethics, cost and scarcity, museums should consider turning their attention to gathering people, expertise, objects, and experiences, and relinquishing the single-minded quest of ownership as our overarching goal.

If we can think of art circulation via “catch and release” as a viable alternative to hanging a trophy on a wall, the art ecosystem may come into better balance, reducing the impetus for vertiginous rental fees or inappropriate benefits to potential donors that distort the mission of museums. Barter among art museums is a much more efficient system than rental, whether the barter currency in exchange for loans is other art, or expertise, or excellent care. When it makes sense to acquire a work, by all means pursue it. But the alternatives to ownership will in many instances yield great benefits in protecting heritage, new scholarship, public enjoyment, and institutional vitality. n

The writer is the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This is adapted from a paper given to the 2010 annual meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors. To read in full “Gather, Steward, and Converse” see related article.

The Art Newspaper

Gather, Steward, and Converse
The ubiquitous mission statement mantra “collect, preserve and interpret” is holding us back from thinking freshly about new institutional responsibilities.
By Maxwell Anderson
Published online 8 Jun 10

The conventional language of art museums impedes our ability to adopt new practices that we very much need. I propose that we retire the ubiquitous mission statement mantra “collect, preserve and interpret”. Not only does ‘collect, preserve, and interpret’ have the leather-bound aroma of a bygone era espousing command and control, and the imparting of wisdom to huddled masses. It is also holding us back from thinking freshly about new institutional responsibilities. I propose a new trio of responsibilities that define the mission of an art museum: Gather, steward, and converse.


There is a major difference between collecting and gathering. When collecting was defined as being given a dowager’s collection, buying an unprovenanced antiquity in Geneva, or paying an artist for a painting, collecting was intuitively at the core of a museum’s functions. But outright donations of the intact estates of obliging collectors are in dwindling supply. We have, I hope, stopped buying and accepting gifts of unprovenanced antiquities. And artists working today are more likely to be selling evanescent performances or installations in unstable media than selling paintings. The prices of old and modern masters and contemporary art have shot through the roof and show no signs of abating. Other factors to be considered include a new consciousness of the sensitivities around acquiring sacred objects, the physical impossibility of permanently committing to massive installations, and the potential of infinite editions of digitally based artworks. All of these have made collecting as we once understood it into a quaint expression that implies an unappealing contest: whoever owns the most art when he dies wins. So let’s gather instead. Let’s pursue gifts and bequests, make joint purchases, embark on long-term loans, make time-limited commissions, buy what makes sense, and devote our time and expertise to gathering people, expertise, objects, and experiences.


Preserve is a less nimble word than steward, which was an intransitive verb by the early 17th century. To steward, or manage, is to take a more conciliatory position, and to yield to new realities. The practice of archaeology involves not only scientific advancement but also controlled destruction. Historic ‘preservation’ of a house or setting is actually an infinite series of Solomonian choices about incremental adaptation and change, not really preservation. Retouching lined canvases that have withstood centuries of clumsy ‘restorations’ or would-be improvements is a form of triage. Refrigerating C-Prints simply staves off the inevitable for a while longer. None of these is synonymous with preservation.

Since art made today cannot, in many instances, be preserved, but can only be emulated, we should be stewards of an artist’s intention, if not her or his eventually obsolescent physical gesture. And as resources shrink and expenses increase, we should be more effective stewards of all resources—be they financial, human, artistic, or environmental.


Art museums have for decades described their role as interpreter of cultural inheritance. In our new socially networked world, interpretation is no longer a one- or two-way street. Transparency changes the museum dynamic from registrarial fortress to public square. Interactivity allows for questioning, augmentation, and dispute of official interpretations by scholars and informed observers. Art museums host conversations among experts and enthusiasts, rather than privileged glimpses into the working methods of curators. Works of art themselves ‘converse’ through loans and exhibitions. Teachers, students, and museum staff and volunteers exchange ideas about the objects in our care and the experiences to be had in our facilities and on our websites. Visitor comments and market research initiate conversations that permeate the former comfort zone of institutional remove. Blogging by museum staff and by others about museums opens up new engagement, exchange, and conversation.

Gather, Steward and Converse

I maintain that we will become more nimble, responsive, and accountable if we retire ‘collect, preserve and interpret’, and embrace ‘gather, steward, and converse’. A new attitude of openness to debate is exactly what our increasingly commercialized and ethically compromised field demands to find a new path to improved institutional performance. It’s overdue that we stop masquerading as inviolate treasure houses that can charge their way to solvency, and instead devise entrepreneurial activities alongside a strong rationale for private and public generosity—by changing our language, and changing ourselves.

The writer is director and chief executive of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This article is excerpted from a paper given at the June 2010 Annual Meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors in Indianapolis.

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