A Museum Genome Project?

Superquick post. I just noticed that Jasper Visser has written about the blurring of boundaries between things; between art fairs and libraries, between shops, restaurants and galleries. The delineations between institutions or organisations once seemingly quite distinct are becoming less so. Or, as Jasper puts it, “The label becomes less important.”

As much as we’ve relied on art or museum classifications to tell us about the things in our collections, as institutions we also rely on classifications to tell us about ourselves and each other. Are we an art museum, or a small museum, or a zoo with only the lesser pandas? Are we a museum, or a library, or a librarymuseum? What relationship does a shop located in an airport that sells goods from the Met have to a museum?

Maybe museums, too, need a classification system more attenuated to nuance, like The Art Genome Project. Could we have a Museum Genome Project; in which all our institutions were assessed according to different characteristics or “genes” so that we could better understand how they relate to one another, and to other like institutions (imagine including the whole GLAM sector)? Genes could be created for factors including size, collecting or non-collecting, live animals or not, and so on. The relationships between a museum with books and a library with objects could probably be far more clearly demonstrated than simply with the labels “museum” or “library”. Taking such an approach to the labelling of museums (rather than just their objects) could provide an interesting and highly descriptive imprint of the sector, and the relationships different institutions have with each other. That knowledge could then be used to develop appropriate standards and best practices; or to correctly advocating for the needs of the sector.

What do you think? Do you think a Museum Genome Project would be a useful way to understand the sector, and the complex ways in which different institutions relate to, or differ from, one another? Could this be a useful approach for tackling sector-wide problems, like advocacy, or developing appropriate standards and best practices? And what would the essential genes include?

P.S. – In case you didn’t notice, my imagination has been captured by The Art Genome Project. Fortunately Matthew Israel is going to be at MCN2012, and I am very much looking forward to picking his brain there.

How could anyone think this little guy was less then a Panda?

Museum collections and the “rhetoric gap”

There are a couple of questions that have started nagging at me when I look at museum websites, and particularly when I look at online collections. With the American Association of Museums annual meeting on in the States this week, it seemed like a good time to start asking them.

Are museum collections actually as important as we often say they are? I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone in a museum argue that the most important thing about the museum is its collection – and why wouldn’t they? Each museum’s collection is unique. It is here that museums can differentiate themselves. A local art museum can collect works of national and local importance, and use each to speak of its place in a community. A history museum can define its very purpose by those objects that it has acquired.

Even more than this, as Steven E. Weil points out in his excellent book Rethinking the Museum, the justification makes “a kind of strategic sense to stress what it is that is most distinctive about museums – that they acquire and care for collections.” (p29.) In doing so, museums craft out a niche for themselves.

In Managing Things – Crafting a Collections Policy from the AAM’s Museum News, John Simmons writes:

It is clear that what distinguishes the museum from other educational, scientific, and aesthetic organizations is its relationship with its collections. “Museums exist,” writes Morris Museum Director Steven H. Miller, “because of an assumption that physical objects have value.” In Museums, Objects and Collections, Susan M. Pearce writes, “The point of collections and museums . . . revolves around the possession of ‘real things’ and . . . essentially this is what gives museums their unique role.”

But when I look at the message I get from museums on the Internet, the collection rarely sits front and centre. Many institutions still don’t have their collections online, and although I realise there are often both financial and time constraints, this just reinforces my sense that the collection has fallen down the priority list.

When even a major collecting institution such as the Met – whom have clearly invested a lot of time, thought and money into their online collection, and who were just awarded MW2012 Best of the Web for Research/Online Collections – does not obviously feature their collection on the front page of their website except in the navigation bar, it does not reinforce the message that the collection is what is essential and unique to the museum.

I know that we don’t really know who or what online collections are for, but maybe the Internet exposes the fact that we don’t actually know why our collections would be valuable to anyone for reasons other than the ones we provide in our existing displays and scholarship.

As regular readers would know, I firmly believe the Internet is actually the perfect vehicle for making museum collections more useful and more valuable, by ensuring that the collection can be found, used and reconnected to the ever-deepening well of online information. We might be able to ensure that the ideas anchored by our collections are be able to be put to worthwhile use externally to the museum, as well as within it. We are only just beginning to imagine how and why the Internet will be useful for the production of new knowledge and new memories, but it seems to me that there is richness to be found here.

Still, we contradict ourselves when we speak of the importance of our collections, and then act as though our programming is the centre of our existence, as is often the case online. Certainly, programming is easier to quantify and market. Our audiences know what it means to look online for events and changing exhibitions. It’s something they understand. But it’s also something we understand and know how to talk to.

Weil continues (p.29.), writing (emphasis mine):

The difficulty is that somewhere along the line too many of us – and here I must include myself – have too frequently misapprehended what has been a strategy to be the truth. We have too often taken what is a necessary condition to the work of museums – the existence of carefully-acquired, well-documented and well-cared-for collections – and treated that necessary condition as though it were a sufficient condition. In developing justifications for the public support of museums, we too have forgotten that their ultimate importance must lie not in their ability to acquire and care for objects – important as that may be – but in their ability to take such objects and put them to some worthwhile use. In our failure to recognize this, we run the danger of trivializing both our institutions and ourselves.

It seems to me that the Internet is exposing the fact that the rhetoric about the importance of collections to museums is not necessarily matched by actions that support that narrative.

Obviously each individual institution is different. Some institutions do emphasize the importance of their collections on- and offline, while others no-doubt place greater emphasis on other things in their missions. Non-collecting institutions are surely exempt from this issue (are they the institutions most honest with themselves about the reasons for their existence?). But what does this say about us as a field, that our rhetoric does not necessarily match our actions. And if we are lying to ourselves, should we change our actions to match our words, and actually find ways to put the collection front-and-centre online, or do we alter the stories we tell ourselves?

What do you think? Is the Internet exposing an internal inconsistency between what we say and what we do in museums? And if so, is it our rhetoric that should change, or our actions?

New(castle) directions

My local museum has been closed for the last couple of years whilst undertaking a major move to a new site. Excitingly, it is almost ready to reopen in a new location, with new permanent exhibitions that should better showcase the region’s local history.

As a result, there have been a number of new positions advertised at the museum, but the most interesting one has just been announced… the museum needs a new Director! The current Director is retiring, and so Newcastle City Council is advertising for “an experienced operator to lead and guide the direction of the New Museum. Not just anyone, we need an ideas person. Someone who can visualise and implement. Someone who understands how a Museum operates at all levels.”

So first up, if you are (or know) someone amazing who would be great at this job, then (get them to) apply! With a new museum to play with, this could be a really interesting opportunity for the right person.

Having said that, I’m guessing that the right person is not going to be from Newcastle. One of the biggest challenges about living in this city (and I would guess, in any regional town) is that opportunities for career growth in the arts are pretty limited – and so most of the people who end up in high-end positions in our cultural institutions generally come from outside the city (and vice versa – most people have to leave to build their arts careers). Even the position selection criteria seems to imply for this, stating that applicants should have “Substantial experience in a Museum leadership capacity and demonstrated capacity to lead a small multidisciplinary Museum team” – something next to impossible to get within local area.

Yet today I was reading the AAM’s 2002 publication Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums. Ellen Hirzy’s report (p9) opens with the statement:

Every museum has a deeply rooted connection with its community that is uniquely its own. However far reaching its collections and scholarship or the diversity of its audiences, a museum’s particular community context anchors it, revitalizes its mission and sense of purpose, and enriches its understanding of what is possible to accomplish.

I can’t help thinking about how challenging the first months must be for a new director at a museum – particularly a local history museum – as an outsider. Not only does he or she have to try to establish him/herself in a new position, possibly within a new town, but he/she must also try to negotiate the ‘deeply rooted connection’ that the museum has with its community. Sounds like a big ask – but an interesting one. So here’s hoping that someone out there wants to come and lead at our New(castle) museum.