Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Death by a Thousand Cuts

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has published a very good article about the gradual erosion of curatorial expertise caused by the freezing of positions. This has been a fact of life for most of us in museums for years, but it's one that's largely invisible to the public. Of course, it's not just the academic research programs that suffer - for every frozen curatorial position there's usually at least one, and sometimes more than one, in collections care. Many institutions are operating with a skeleton staff and sometimes no staff at all. It would be tempting to view this as a symptom of the current financial crunch, but in fact - as the article makes clear - it's been going on for years. Even in times of relative prosperity, museums have been redeploying funds to support new initiatives at the expense of existing programs. You might say that this was good management, but in many cases what's actually happened is that support for core activities has been nibbled away - a case of too much icing and not enough cake.

[written from my hotel room in Leiden, where I am wrestling with the Dutch interface for blogger.com - apparently "aanmelden" means "sign in." Who knew?]

1 comment:

  1. Museums are suffering the same threat to their economic model as newspapers. But, it hit newspapers fast, while it has been creeping up on museums slowly. For years, newspapers made their money from advertising (their "icing") while their core business was investigative reporting (the "cake".) Then the internet pulled the rug out from under them. There is not enough venue from print ads to support them, and they have not found a model to get people/society to pay for the investigative reporting. Museums for years have made their money in drips and drabs from all sorts of icing--space rental, large format theaters, shops, food service, sponsorships etc. All things provided competitively by for profit business, all vulnerable to competition in a tight economy. We have never trained society to pay us directly and explicitly for research or collections care. The "core" direct services they do pay for (exhibits, programming) don't spin off enough profit to cover behind-the-scenes. And how can we train people to value and pay for collections/research when the vast majority are unaware these activities take place? We gotta lot of educating to do, folks...

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