Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Effective Collection

Dropping into my mail box a few days ago came the programme prospectus for “Effective Collections” a new initiative by the UK Museums Association. Effective Collections, which is supported with funding from the Esmee Fairburn Foundation, offers funding and support to museums to make better use of their collections. By getting rid of them.

OK, that was a little unfair. To understand where this is all coming from, you need to go back to a 2005 report produced by the Museums Association called “Collections for the Future” – you can download a copy here. Collections for the Future argued that it is not enough for a museum to simply acquire and preserve a collection; the museum also has a responsibility to make sure that the collection gets used.

So far, I think most curators and collection managers would be in agreement with this (even those of us that think that the biggest threat to the well-being of the specimens in our collections are the idiots that we allow to work on them). One solution is to make people more aware of the amazing things that we have in our collections, give them better tools for resource discovery, and find ways to improve both physical and virtual access, something near and dear to my heart.

But the MA goes further than this. They believe that even when such steps are taken, there will be a significant rump of museum objects that are not being used. For these objects, says the MA, the path to better usage lies in long loans, transfers, and other forms of disposal that keep the objects in the public domain while ensuring that they get used and seen more frequently.

So why am I objecting to this? Well, it’s not so much the general principle that I object to so much as some of the thoughts that spin off from the report. One of my favorites is the statement that “many museums and individuals are risk averse in their attitudes to using collections.” Although in principal we seem to be in favor of increased access, we balk at the reality of, say, putting one of our dinosaurs on exhibit in the lobby of the local Hooters. Why are we so risk averse? Well according to Effective Collections we are scared of the potential personal liability of taking a risky decision and also the potential damage to our reputation if we make certain decisions. In other words, we’re a bunch of chickens.

The statement that really gets my goat, however, is this one. The report writers think it’s so crucial that they put in a big red font to make it stand out on the page.

The MA’s work on sustainability in museums highlights the fundamentally unsustainable practice of acquiring more objects and it is increasingly difficult to justify large (growing) collections to governing bodies in the face of current economic conditions and the need to reduce energy use.”

So we’re back to sustainability again. We can’t do our job, because it’s energy intensive. Because, rest assured, for natural history collections it is our job to grow our collections. For paleontology, our understanding of the fundamental processes by which life on this planet originated and diversified depends on the discovery of new fossils. Almost 200 years after Gideon Mantell began the scientific study of dinosaurs, we have barely scratched the surface of the former biodiversity of the planet. If our collections cease to grow, then our science grinds to a halt. The same is true of recent biodiversity – it is a strange paradox that the MA is trying to argue that the growth of the collections that we need to develop effective conservation strategies is actually leading to the destruction of the communities we are trying to save.

But of course, they’re not actually arguing this. Every example, case history, and illustration in the report is of an artwork or other human cultural object. The only natural history specimen in the report is a rather sad looking stuffed polar bear on page 5. This is hardly surprising, given the current level of understanding of natural history collections in the MA (the coverage of natural sciences in the Association’s main publication, Museums Journal, is limited to periodic pieces about the ethical issues surrounding the inclusion of taxidermy in displays – they tend to publish variants on this one article every couple of years). The MA has written the report from a entirely monocular perspective – display quality material that can be passed on to other institutions for exhibit, education, etc

I think this is an important point. The sort of usage described in Effective Collections is unlikely to apply to most of the millions of natural history objects in museums worldwide. Unfortunately, when you start applying the same usage rationale to these collections it reveals some uncomfortable facts. As I discussed in an earlier post, the fraction of our specimens that are actually used in a year is tiny – for a big collection it’s likely to be less than 1%. The material on loan is about 1/10 of this. What’s the sustainable “solution” for these collections? Disposal? Dispersal? Or is it all just a big waste of time and effort, as I argued in my post.

I was discussing these issues with a colleague of mine a few days ago. A previously avowed sustainability skeptic, she was now coming around to the idea that we can no longer ignore these issues in the management of our collections. She felt that I’d been a little unfair in dismissing the energy costs of museum collections as a miniscule fraction of humanity’s carbon footprint – while this might be true, we had a responsibility to at least consider what might be done. The most practical route might be to take a look at the enormous energy costs required to sustain the currently accepted environmental standards for collection storage. In many cases, we have unrealistically tight standards which are then addressed using inefficiently designed engineering controls. This is an area where action by the collections community might have a significant impact.

“You know how it is,” she said. “The Brits always come up with this crazy, extreme museum management stuff. Then we look at it, dilute it down, and turn it into something that actually works.”

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