Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Collection-Centered Museum

If this blog has any sort of unifying principle, it’s the idea that the successful museum is the one that remains centered on its collections. I expounded this idea in a guest post on AAM’s Center for theFuture of Museums blog a couple of years ago and was surprised that some readers took it as a call to divert funds away from public engagement. This was certainly not my intention. So, what with me coming back from a break in blogging, and fresh from speaking at a couple of advocacy sessions at this year’s SPHNC meeting, it seemed like now might be a good time to revisit the issue.

The first post was written in the light of cuts made to the collections of research and collections staff at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, which attracted widespread criticism because of the decision by the Museum to lay off tenured curators. The reasons for this don’t need to be rehashed here – they were widely reported in the press at the time and you can read about it here if you’re interested.

When I was asked to write the post for the CFM blog, their director rather impishly suggested that I should talk about the situation at the Field Museum, knowing that this sort of thing tends to irritate me, and thus provide a more entertaining post than might otherwise be the case. As it happened, I chose not to focus on the Field, because it didn’t seem fair. Plenty of other museums have got themselves in the same mess in the past, and have responded in similar ways; the situation in Chicago attracted particularly opprobrium because of the removal of tenure, but the decisions that led to it were no worse than those made by many other, less prominent institutions.

To my mind, there was a more fundamental issue at stake than job cuts, and my visit to the annual AAM meeting in Seattle this year brought it into even sharper focus. As I wandered through the crowds at the convention center, browsed the list of sessions, and sat in the back row at talks, it occurred to me that very few people at the meeting actually worked with directly with museum collections. There were educators, and exhibit designers, and business development officers, and community outreach specialists, and digital media programmers, and development executives, and evaluators, and any number of presidents and senior VPs for this, that and the other. But curators and collection managers were thin on the ground.

The delegates at AAM are pretty representative of the museum community in the United States; the vast majority of them have little or no contact with collections on a day-to-day basis. For many of them, their job would not be substantially different if they worked for a university, a charity, or some other not-for-profit venture, and their resumes often reflect this. None of this is to suggest that they are not 100 percent competent at doing their jobs, or that they are anything less than essential for the successful running of their museums. But it does highlight the fact that there is much more to running a museum than just caring for collections.

This is not the same, however, as saying that all of these functions are equivalent in importance to the care of collections. Museums exist because there are collections. Absent the collections, there is no particular reason why a museum should have an education program, or produce exhibits, or engage in community outreach, all of which could be done in another sort of institution. Collections are the tool that museums have that no-body else does. Collections are what make museums unique.

Healthy collections nourish successful public programs. The best museum exhibits and educational programs are the ones that draw on the research carried out on the museum’s collections. How do I know that what you’re telling me is true? Because I have the evidence for it right under the same roof, along with the experts that can interpret that evidence for you.  And in the very best educational programs, you might actually get to hear from those experts in person.

When you start to cut away at collections programs, laying off curators, pruning the number of staff devoted to core activities like loans and cataloging, shuttering collections and reducing access for researchers and the public, you are damaging the health of the museum’s core. Many museum administrators believe that they can do this safely, because collections are largely invisible to the average museum visitor. Provided that public programs remain relatively unscathed, the perception of the institution, and those all-important gate receipts, will not suffer.

And in the short term, this may be true. The problem is that effective collections curation is dependent on expertise that takes a long time to acquire, so even if more funding for the collections is available in the future – and there are staff left to advocate for them – it takes far longer for collections programs to recover than for other programmatic activities. And the longer the collections are compromised, the more that compromised state will be reflected in reduced quality of public programs. Eventually the rot at the core becomes visible on the exterior.

So what’s the answer? It lies, I think, in educating museum managers to return to first principles in the way that they look at their institutions. Recruiting senior management from outside the museum world has provide valuable external perspectives for our sector and its business practices, but it has also created a generation of managers who look at their institutions in the same way as the public does. In other words, back-asswards.

To elaborate - some preliminary research on visitor attitudes that we’ve been carrying out at the Peabody revealed that most of our visitors believe that they’re seeing around 1/5 of our collections during a typical visit. The actual fraction is about 1/24,000. The average member of the public has no idea that the public spaces of the Museum are only a relatively thin veneer on top of a giant instrument for understanding the natural world and our place in it, which requires a large team of scientific specialists to operate, It’s as if they visited the visitor center at the Kennedy Space Center and went away oblivious to the fact that there were rockets being launched outside. The largest, and most critical part of the museum is not what you see in the galleries.

To get around this problem, I think we need to start close to home, by changing the way in which collections are regarded in-house - and just in case you thought this was a diatribe aimed at senior management, I have news for you; the biggest barrier to a wider appreciation of the value of collections to the museum are curators and collection managers who see their role as restricting access to those collections, usually citing concerns over preservation and security.

If you want to ensure funding for collections, you need to make the case that they are a resource for the whole museum, and that means treating them that way. There is no de facto reason why your education and exhibit staff should not have keys to the collection and the ability to draw freely on them for a resource. If you’re concerned that they will make poor choices, then you – as a curator – need to take responsibility for educating them. I hate to say this, but responsible stewardship has two components; preservation and access. It’s not OK to do one at the expense of the other.


And that’s what I mean by the collection-centered museum. Not that we support collections at the expense of public programs, but that we do a much better job at designing public programs that draw on the strengths of the collections and in creating institutions in which collections are seen as common property rather than the preserve of the select few.

More to come on this subject...

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Did You Miss Me?

I guess the answer to this question is "no," since in the two years I haven't been posting regularly only two of my regular readers asked me when I was going to write again (thank you, Beth Merritt and Carl Zimmer). Not that I care. Like most bloggers, I suspect, I write for myself, to rehearse arguments and develop ideas that I use elsewhere. If the rest of you enjoy it, so much the better. But it's an essentially selfish pursuit.

Why did I stop? Well, I'd like to tell you that it was because something both unlikely and exciting happened - like being kidnapped by pirates, or getting into an obsessive, physically and emotionally damaging relationship with a self-destructive partner (where did that come from?) - but in fact, my two years of (almost) silence corresponds with my presidency of SPNHC. I'd like to say that it was because I was too busy, but that's not really why I shut up.

I started blogging not long after leaving my previous employer, the American Museum of Natural History. AMNH is one of the world's great museums, but it is also a highly controlled and controlling institution that frowns on its staff expressing opinions that might differ from the Museum's official position. As part of my employment, I had to sign a document that said that I could never disclose anything I did there without the Museum's permission, even after I left.

The issue of blogging came up when we were discussing the Museum's nascent digital strategy with some consultants hired to develop an institutional "vision." As my ex-boss said at the time, "staff blogs are not something that the Museum would want to encourage or support." When I called him on this, he made the point that curators are protected by tenure (unless they're not), which means they are safe in expressing their opinions. Staff are not. Or, as he put it, "you could get fired."

Of course, things have moved on since then and most organizations have embraced blogs and blogging, including AMNH and SPNHC. They allow the institution to speak with a different voice, and can provide a window into day-to-day activities that is more flexible and adaptable than the traditional outlets of publications, press releases, and exhibits. But one shouldn't confuse this with increased openness. If you want to find out what staff at the Field Museum think about cutting tenured curators, don't bother asking Erica.

From a corporate perspective, this is quite understandable. Ask fifty people their opinion on something and you'll likely get fifty answers. To some extent museums have embraced the concept of instutional diversity more than other corporations, because diversity is something that concerns museums, but there are limits. A museum can speak with different voices, but those voices are not allowed to disagree with each other.

During my time as SPNHC President, I embraced this idea. I was representing an organization of 600 members - including individuals, institutions, and corporations - and there was no way my personal opinion was going to match with theirs. If I blogged then, inevitably, people would assume I was speaking for the Society and, large though my ego is, I didn't feel comfortable taking on that role. So, with a couple of exceptions that weren't to do with museums or collections, I chose to shut up.

The key phrase there is "I chose." All to often, where our work is concerned, we don't get to choose. I think that's a pity. We're facing some significant challenges in museums today, and I'm not sure that effective solutions will emerge if we stifle honest and open debate in favor of presenting a unified front to the world. Are we really so fragile that we can't tolerate anything that departs from bland consensus?

So in the second coming of PoH, I'm looking forward to being a lot more opinionated. When my employer insults my intelligence by repackaging unpaid leave as a "non-academic sabbatical" or responds to staff concerns over lack of career mobility with a "personal development plan" that doesn't actually do anything to develop their career, then I'm going to call them on it. And when our community - and that includes some of you - drones on about the importance of collections without seriously questioning why we should be spending scarce public funds on them at the expense of things that directy benefit the genuinely needy in society, then I'm call them on that too.

Oh yes, my very small legionette of fans. I am back.