26 Oct

Where have all the good men gone? The inequality no one worries about.

Helen Wilkinson

The queues for the women’s loos at the Museums Association conference earlier this month often trailed out of the door. At times it reminded me of going to Cinderella at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, where I found it impossible to go to the loo and have time for an ice cream in the interval, but my husband could take our young daughters into the gents’ without fear of embarrassment because he was one of only a handful of men in the entire audience.

Is the gender profile of the museums workforce equally distorted?

Last week the Collections Trust announced a new programme of collections management traineeships, organised in partnership with Arts Council England. All twenty trainees are women. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the Collections Trust – I’m sure the appointments were made on merit and this lack of diversity reflects the profile of the applicants. It has long been the case that women far outnumber men on museum studies courses, and in entry level jobs, a phenomenon my colleague Maurice Davies explored in his 2007 report, Tomorrow People. Nevertheless, with gender profiles like this emerging, organisers of training schemes in the museum sector are going to have to start thinking seriously about positive action on gender.

Why does it matter? Firstly, of course, there is now a wide consensus that a monocultural museum profession cannot serve diverse audiences well (the Arts Council’s so-called ‘Creative Case’ for diversity). That has to extend to gender. The historic and continuing disadvantages faced by women do not make an absence of men somehow OK.

Secondly, there is an argument from self-interest, with extensive research suggesting that in the longer term the ‘feminisation’ of a profession or sector is bad for everyone who works in it. Society still often links status to gender, so work is seen to matter more if men do it.

So much for entry level, what’s it like at senior level? This week, the MA announced the appointment of Sharon Heal, pointing out that she was its first female director. (In fact, other women have held leadership positions at the MA – the list of female past presidents goes back to Mary Woodall in 1962 and Brenda Capstick ran the MA as its most senior member of staff from 1965 to 1983, although then the title of the top job was ‘secretary’, rather than director.) Does Sharon’s appointment mirror the wider sector?

Not necessarily; a report in 2013, based on a sample of 50 museums, found that only 28% of national and regional museum directors were female. Plenty of regional museums are run by women, but the nationals are still dominated by men, often privately educated.

At board level the picture is different. Regional museums’ boards tend to be male-dominated whereas boards of English national museums are more equal, thanks to the efforts of DCMS which has set a target for a 50:50 gender split. (Unusually in its recent history, the MA’s two top board roles are both currently held by men.)

Lots of women in the workforce evidently doesn’t translate to women at the top. In primary teaching, there is evidence that men who buck the trend and join the sector are promoted more quickly than women. Will that hold true in museums? What we need is more women at the very top, more men at entry level, and more equality everywhere.

21 Oct

Children and museums: Is gin the way to cope?

Maurice Davies

Artist Jake Chapman must have had a bad day at a busy exhibition when he said that taking children to galleries is ‘a total waste of time’. Perhaps he’d even had a hard time trying to engage his own children with the art he likes?

His comments led from one thing to another, including provocateur Tiffany Jenkins questioning whether children should go to museums at all. ‘Stop children taking over our museums and galleries’ screamed the headline of her article.

She perhaps can’t be held responsible for the headline, but she does say ‘for adults, museums and galleries are increasingly off-limits during the holidays and the weekends, and during term-time, because they’re overrun by children … At National Museums Scotland, it’s unbearably noisy… And at the National Gallery and the British Museum… large school parties career through the galleries and are placed in front of the “highlights” of the collection, making it difficult for anyone else to have a look or think. Adult spaces for study and contemplation have been transformed into playgrounds.’

When Neil MacGregor received similar complaints as director of the National Gallery he used to sweetly reply ‘try visiting after 3pm; you’ll find it’s quieter then’.

I rashly agreed to take part in a public discussion with Tiffany Jenkins at the Battle of Ideas. So, with a slightly heavy heart I trekked to the Barbican and performed the ritual of ‘find the door’. (In spite of spending millions refurbing the building, it seems harder to navigate than ever.) Once inside, Jenkins told me that there had been a bigger reaction to her children and museums piece than to anything else she’d written. She was still slightly reeling under the onslaught of comments and emails, plenty of them saying she was being ridiculous.

Undeterred, at the Battle of Ideas she repeated many of her earlier comments, supported by Telegraph music critic Ivan Hewett. They made the general point that parents are often too in thrall to their children – an observation, with which I tend to agree, exemplified by soppy parents who allow their little brats to keep their seats on the bus or tube when adults are standing.

But there were also wild claims that children don’t, or can’t, learn anything in museums, that museums have abandoned their golden age of serenity and that the ideal way to engage with a museum collection is through private contemplation. Jenny Wedgbury, responsible for children’s engagement at the V&A, made a robust defence.

A few of the audience agreed they didn’t like museums when they were busy and a few didn’t like more popular exhibitions such as Banksy at Bristol or the culminating section of the British Library’s Gothic Imagination, which apparently draws parallels with contemporary Goth culture.

In my rant I got the best laughs when I read out mid-19th-century criticism of the National Gallery because it sounded so much like the 21st-century Tiffany Jenkins.

Here’s Jenkins: museums are ‘overrun by children who are rarely asked to: “Shh”, or “Slow down”’. And here’s an 1850 House of Commons committee report: the Gallery has shockingly become ‘a place in which children of all ages may recreate and play’.

Here’s Jenkins: ‘large school parties career through the galleries’. And here’s Thomas Uwins, the keeper of the National Gallery in 1850: ‘On one occasion I saw a school of boys, I imagine 20, taking their satchels from their backs with their bread and cheese, sitting down and making themselves very comfortable and eating their luncheon.’

Uwins, and other elitists of the time, were eroding the founding concept of the National Gallery, its openness: Whig MP George Agar-Ellis had argued in 1824 that the gallery should be ‘situated in the very gangway of London, where it is alike accessible, and conveniently accessible, to all ranks and degrees of men… to the indolent as well as the busy.’ Just 10 years after the National Gallery opened Keeper Uwins, like Tiffany Jenkins today, was having none of it.

Here’s Uwins’ particular low point: ‘I saw some people, who seemed to be country people, who had a basket of provisions, and who drew their chairs round and sat down, and seemed to make themselves very comfortable; they had meat and drink; and when I suggested to them the impropriety of such a proceeding in such a place, they were very good-humoured, and a lady offered me a glass of gin.’

OK, then: ban the children, but bring back the gin.

With thanks to Brandon Taylor, National Gallery, London: for ‘all ranks and degrees of men’ in The First Modern Museums of Art, ed Carole Paul, Getty Publications, 2012

15 Oct

Elegant but Puzzling: The Aga Khan Museum was going to be in London, is it better off in Toronto?

Maurice Davies

Arriving at the newly opened Aga Khan Museum is a strange experience. Once planned for the banks of the Thames in central London, the museum opened on 18 September in suburban Toronto. Its luxurious building is rather incongruous, next to a noisy expressway, just along from buildings housing offices for banks and McDonalds.

As you approach the museum, starkly isolated from any kind of context apart from the neighbouring Ismali Centre, you feel it could just as easily be in the Gulf as in urban North America. There are inevitable resonances with the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, although sadly the Toronto version doesn’t share its magnificent setting and views. Mind you, if the architect had arranged things differently, there could’ve been an attractive vista of downtown.

The interior combines 21st-century corporate minimalism with Islamic patterns – in the glazing and in carved wooden panels, for example. Sunlight is allowed to gently filter into some of the galleries. The artificial lighting is superbly done. The ambient light level is quite low, with gentle touches of spotlighting on the displays. Every single object is evenly lit; there are no shadows and virtually no reflections.

Elegant, well-lit, relaxed galleries, what’s not to like? Unfortunately, the architectural design is far from perfect as the galleries all open into each other, with no doors, or even narrowed openings separating them. That might make for easy, free-flowing visitor circulation, but there are hard edges and hard surfaces with little to absorb sound. It’s uncomfortably noisy, with multiple echoes from visitors’ voices and footsteps.There is also distracting noise overspill from videos in the temporary exhibition gallery, on a balcony high above.

The permanent-collection displays combine restrained av presentations with items presented almost individually as great works of art. Some are on open display; others in the most minimally elegant showcases I’ve ever seen, possibly the most expensive, too.

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The ghastly modern paraphernalia of smoke alarms, exit signs, plug sockets and switches has been fairly effectively corralled and disciplined. But some things still jar, such as a brightly lit exit sign adjacent to a 15th- century carpet. Perhaps it’s a mark of democracy that bureaucrats can thwart the designs of even the richest men in the world.

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The displays look lovely, but elegance does not always support understanding. Some labels are so far removed from objects that it’s impossible to work out which description refers to which artefact. A particularly frustrating example is a case where 10th-century bowls are displayed in two rows of three, but the labels are in a block of three rows of two. I had no idea which was which.

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Some visitors struggled to identify things. I overheard a couple puzzling over the function of a large marble fountain and pond. I eventually found its official label, hidden at ground level a couple of metres away on the plinth to a different object. Presumably done in the interests of not detracting from the beauty of the object, that was a plain daft decision – especially as the fountain itself is festooned with no less than five ‘do not touch’ notices.

There’s a nice alternative to minimalism in the Bellerive Room. Carpeted and comfortably furnished, it displays islamic ceramics inspired by the way they were arranged in an earlier Aga Kan’s home in Geneva, in showcases made from Spanish church pews.

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Unfortunately, the only view from the room’s window is the museum car park. Apparently the view from the museum members’ room is better than any granted to the ordinary visitor.

So, a good museum but not a great one and I don’t envisage large numbers of people making the journey. It has that mildly depressing dehumanised soullessness of contemporary minimalist luxury. It’s a bit of a vanity project and it would probably have been better if it had needed to argue for external funding.

It bills itself as ‘the first museum in north America dedicated to the intellectual, cultural and artistic heritage of Muslim civilisations’. (Intriguingly, the word ‘islam’ appears to be largely avoided.) A member of staff told me that the museum ended up in Toronto as a mark of respect for, or even a gift in return for, the city’s extraordinary openness to migrants and to different cultures. If that’s the case, then it might’ve been less happy in central London. More accessible, certainly, but at the heart of a nation that seems ever more backward-looking, isolationist and frightened of the rest of the world.

10 Oct

Thoughts from a home bound train

Helen Wilkinson

It was probably rash to promise my colleagues that I’d sum up my thoughts on MA Conference 2014 from the train home. It’s been an intense two days of new and old faces, new and old ideas. No doubt Mark Carnell, curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, was aiming to provoke when he asserted this morning that the annual conference can be ‘an echo chamber of platitudes’. Platitude or shared value? Tenet of faith or statement of the bleedin’ obvious? It’s a fine line sometimes, and any large gathering of people who work in the same small sector is bound to include its fair share of stuff you think you’ve heard before. But it set me the challenge of identifying ideas and themes which didn’t feel like platitudes, and perspectives that felt properly fresh.

Unsurprisingly, many of these came from outside the sector. Mat Fraser’s performance avoided the platitude in both form and content, vituperative rap not being a regular feature of MA conferences in my experience. Fraser, whose work is profiled in this month’s Museums Journal, challenged museums to recognise that they help shape society’s values, not just reflect them. Arguing that museums need to change the way they approach the histories of disabled people, Fraser stressed the power of history-making to shape the way we see the world and people in it, rapping: ‘what do you see? It depends on the history.’ I argued in yesterday’s blog that ‘changing lives’ needs to start from stories, objects and collections, not just projects, and Fraser’s performance seemed to embody that idea more eloquently than I could.

Martyn Evans, an academic with interests in philosophy and medical humanities explored the nature of wonder in museums. Evans acknowledged he was an outsider to the sector and his encapsulation of what is interesting about museums didn’t feel quite right to me, and made no reference to the (extensive) museum studies literature on wonder. But had I ever reflected before on whether museums pushed visitors to confront the fundamental philosophical problem of how consciousness can exist in a material world? Definitely not. I don’t think it’s an insight that offers anything that I’ll be carrying forward in my thinking, much less in a practical way.  But it did expand my mind for a minute or two and that’s more than you can fairly expect from a post-lunch session you wandered into by accident.

Antonio Vieira’s presentation on the Museu da Mare, based in a squatted building in a favela in Rio, gave an extraordinary account of how the museum aims to change both attitudes to and the experience of people whose lives are lived in conditions of poverty and violence. It was moving enough, even without his closing revelation that the museum is due to be evicted from its site and forced to close in a matter of months. The MA has promised to provide information on how people can campaign on behalf of the museum on its website.

This was also the first conference I’ve been to with a poet in residence. Martin Daws closed the conference with a work inspired by the two days and some thoughts on the experience. He said he’d enjoyed spending time with people who shared many of his passions, but he noted an ‘undercurrent of fear’ with everyone worrying about funding and the future of their jobs. Be brave, he urged, people need you. Bravery doesn’t mean quite the same in the UK as it does in the developing world, but perhaps we can all borrow some of Vieira’s courage to take home from Cardiff.

10 Oct

12 hours in Cardiff, an exhibition visitors view of MA Conference 2014

Caitlin Griffiths

9.30 am (well in reality after cancelled and delayed trains its 1030) arrive at the Wales Millennium Centre.

I am trying conference in a different way this year, as an exhibition visitor and not a delegate. It’s a first for me, but as the recent Museum Practice on consultants highlighted it’s a great way to experience all the networking of conference but at a fraction of the costs.

The thing that really strikes me as I take my first tour round the exhibition is the clean lines of the majority of the stands. Busy stands filled with historical replicas for loan boxes and handling sessions or racks for displaying postcards and other shop stock seem to be a thing of the past for most exhibitors. Now the feel is much more digital and high tech, with exhibitors showcasing virtual tours, augmented reality and apps. Whilst I mourn the passing of some of the more quirky and cluttered stands you can really appreciate the impressive graphics and the new possibilities that this sort of technology can offer, you can see the exciting opportunities for engagement it can bring to a new generation of museum audiences. To be honest, I am seduced.

But I have pause in my technological fervour. During my MP workshop on museums working with artists, Alice Briggs from Ceredigion Museum shares her experience of working with artist in residence Janekta Platun on a Welsh hat inspired project ‘Not Hat is This’ (http://aberystwythuniversitycollections.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/not-hat-is-this/ ). Part of the project was to build a site specific piece on a local beach, recreating each Welsh hat still in existence with a replica made out of sand. At the end of the day the sea came and washed the sand castle shaped hats away, demonstrating the notion the artist wanted to play with of the hats as fading cultural icons.  There was something very moving about the images of these sand hats being washed out to sea, and then to see an image of a real Welsh hat on display at the museum – it showed the enduring role that the hat plays in Welsh identity, but also the potential for an icon such as this to fade from people’s consciousness.

As the daughter of a Welshman (who to be fair has been in England for over 50 years so can’t claim to still be very connected to his Welsh heritage) who dressed in Welsh national costume as a child the images of the hat and Janekta’s work definitely provoked a reaction in me and once again showed the power of the object. Whilst my new found love affair with all things technological will I am sure go on, my old love affair with objects remains.

9.30 pm back on the train after drinks at the National Museum and a chance to catch up with friends and the latest gossip. All in all a good 12 hours and a thought provoking conference despite not going to any sessions, would I attend conference again just as a visitor? The jury is still out on that one.

09 Oct

How exactly do museums change lives?

David Anderson spoke powerfully this morning at the MA conference about the potential of museums to change lives, and illustrated it with Paul’s Story, a moving account of how one man’s life was transformed, perhaps even saved, through the positive experience of volunteering at St. Fagans’. If you weren’t in the session, do watch the video here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=TgdfBMNvyPY

I was moved by Paul’s story, and don’t in any way want to diminish the enormity of what the museum has meant in his life. But, for me, it did raise the question: what is it that museums can do to change lives, that other organisations can’t? In another part of my life, I am a trustee of my local Foodbank. I have been to Foodbank network conferences (in much less plush surroundings than we’re enjoying here) where I have heard stories very like Paul’s, stories of people who started out as Foodbank clients, were given food and practical support, overcame terrible circumstances, and now help others as Foodbank volunteers.

So do museums have something unique to offer? Of course, on the one hand, museums are part of civil society and have much in common with other civil society institutions. Museums are not the only organisations that promote volunteering opportunities, provide shared public spaces and help people at risk of exclusion back into engagement and employment. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it.

But there are things they do that others can’t, and David’s presentation perhaps only  hinted at that. He argued that museums should listen to the lessons in their objects and their collections and think about their potential to change lives. And of course it’s here that museums have something particular to offer. Museums can help people to think differently about their own lived experience and to empathise with the experience of others. They can make other lives, other cultures, other places real and vivid in a way that few other media can. We know this as people who work in museums. So many people in museums have a story to tell about an encounter with a story in a museum that changed them. We need to extend the power of this experience to more of our visitors.

Before the conference sessions started, I was chatting to May Redfern about Barnsley Museum Service’s project about memories of the miner’s strike, Coal not Dole: women against pit closures. The project involved giving young people the opportunity to talk to women involved in the strike and learn something of their experience. May commented that some of the young people they worked with didn’t know the difference between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen. When so many people live in communities still shaped by Thatcher’s legacy, building understanding in this way must surely be a way that museums change lives.

Helen Wilkinson

07 Oct

Cardiff, cash and creativity: previewing the Museums Association Conference

Maurice Davies

The Museums Association conference is here again. Hundreds of museum people are spending 48 hrs in Cardiff to learn, share, network and gossip.  Last time the conference was in Cardiff, over 15 years ago, it coincided with the referendum that led to the Welsh Government.

Then, I was one of the people responsible for organising conference; this year, for the first time, I’m attending out of my own free will, rather than as a member of MA staff. So what am I looking forward to?

Well, mostly the networking and gossip –  catching up with old colleagues, meeting new people and    hearing juicy gobbets of mild scandal. Oh, and now I’m a consultant, I’ll also be gently touting my services. (For conference, we’re launching a few fixed- price services for a limited period  http://www.museumconsultancy.co.uk/os/page14/ourservices.html )

It’s always interesting to feel the conference mood. For the past couple of years, people have been unexpectedly positive, in spite of financial difficulties.  Maybe austerity really does free museums up to be more creative, as Helen Wilkinson suggested in our previous blog. So this year, with ever increasing austerity, will people be ever more positive?

Even so, I think there will be an awkwardness in discussions about funding. There’s still the unresolved issue of the huge inequity of cultural funding between London and elsewhere. So far, that’s mainly been a discussion about funding in the English regions.

With the conference based in Wales and the recent no vote in Scotland, I predict some delegates will want to discuss perceived inequities between the countries of the UK.

This often translates as complaints that England does better than elsewhere, but government funding per head is in fact significantly higher outside England. It might currently be easier to raise philanthropic and corporate funds in London, as it’s become so attractive to the world’s billionaires.

However, there are still many wealthy Scots and museums there benefit from a long tradition of charitable giving north of the border – look for example at the superb museums and collections in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Wales may not have such a strong philanthropic tradition, but the national art collection is enviably good for a nation of just over three million people, thanks in part to the generous bequest of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies.

I strongly believe in more cultural funding for non-capital cities, towns and villages in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales – and England, but I hope conference isn’t dominated by anti-English sentiment from disappointed separatists.

Of the more formal bits of conference, I’m looking forward to the keynote talk by  Antônio Vieira, who is director of the Museu da Maré, a museum in a Rio favela. Last year, a bunch of UK museum directors were taken to Rio by the British Council and on their return couldn’t stop raving about the museum, so I’m intrigued to see the man in charge.

Perhaps he’ll demonstrate that the keys to an inspiring museum are things like imagination and genuine community engagement, which are often more important than oodles of cash.

26 Sep

Museum Resilience: Less can mean More

Helen Wilkinson

Arts Council England’s open funding for museums has just been rebranded as the ‘resilience fund’. To those weary from funding cuts, encouraging resilience might seem to be giving in to the politics of austerity. But ‘resilience’ is not a synonym for ‘belt-tightening’ or even ‘survival’. It should lead to change and improvement.

While it would be perverse to welcome funding cuts, adapting to less money really can foster good practice and increase public benefit.

In our international work, we have seen museums rendered bloated and lethargic by generous funding from governments that don’t ask too many questions about their work. If there’s plenty of money around, museums – like other public bodies – tend to accrue layers of management and bureaucracy which can inhibit innovation. The bright idea never sees the light of day because it gets trapped by all the layers through which it has to fight its way to the surface.

More fundamentally, museums that can rely on unthinking largesse from a disinterested funder do not need to take their audiences seriously. When the money keeps coming in, even if the visitors don’t, museums risk becoming beautiful mausoleums or stale backwaters.

In our recent work in the UK, we have seen museums taking the principles of resilience to heart, accepting that public funding will shrink, and setting about finding ways to thrive in spite of that.

A university collection worried about cuts turned to us for advice. It realised that its future lay in making itself more relevant and important to students and researchers.

We helped one museum respond to reduced funding with an organisational review, aimed not at making redundancies but at finding ways for staff to work together more effectively and produce a more engaging public programme that had the potential to generate more income.

And we have worked with at least half a dozen small museums that have been thinking hard about improving the ways they engage with visitors, finding new partnerships and creating new sources of income. These museums all find the new funding climate bracing as well as frightening.

The ACE Resilience Fund will strengthen the work of imaginative and enterprising museums, and help them reshape their work for a new context. ACE is keen to support innovation and we hope some genuinely risky projects get funding.

Earlier this year, a digital media entrepreneur observed to us that one of museums’ greatest weaknesses was their reluctance to try something new, ‘fail fast’ and move on. Perhaps a measure of the new fund’s success will be its openness to that kind of failure.