Archive for September, 2009
Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009
Hoots No. 11 – 23 September 2009: The Future of Museums: an interview with Thomas Campbell of the Metropolitan Museum in New York; Darwin Centre opens at The Natural History Museum in London.
The Art Newspaper recently published a long interview with Thomas Campbell, recently appointed director of the Metropolitan Museum succeeding Philippe de Montebello. The interview gives interesting insights into the future of one of the most prestigious museums in the World. The Met has had to cut back some of its staff after it lost 25% of its endowment in the GFC.
Campbell intends to form a programmatic committee including representatives from departments beyond the curatorial to advise him on exhibitions, replacing the former Council of Advisors comprsing heads of curatorial departments.
Campbell also responds to some comments by Tate Director Serota and British Museum director MacGregor to the effect that British Museums respond more directly to the public than do American museums.
Campbell’s plans offer an interesting counterpoint to the comments made recently in the two part “Future of Museums” program on ABC Radio National’s program ‘Future Tense’ on September 3 and 10.
I have previously commented on Thomas Campbell whose appointment as director of the Met I consider to be one of the most signficant of senior appointments at any museum in the last decade. Remember that Campbell is a specialist in tapestries, not notable for fundraising or managerial ‘wizardry’ and had been a curator at the Met for several years and that when asked why he was appointed, the Chair of the Board referred to Dr Campbell’s “great passion for art”.
The Art Newspaper: How do you think your leadership of the Met may differ from Philippe de Montebello’s?
Thomas Campbell: I came to the museum because it was an incredibly exciting place to work as a scholar in my field. Philippe was a major contributor to the environment that made it such an exciting place and I have every intention of sustaining and developing the strengths of this institution: maintaining a dynamic exhibition programme, the award-winning publication programme, continuing to acquire masterpieces, but also to expand study collections where it”s appropriate, and continuing to place the emphasis on the encounter of our visitors with the objects, trying to really create the environment for that direct experience without bells and whistles. Will I be introducing change? I guess it”s evolution rather than revolution.
TAN: Will your leadership style be the same as his?
TC: “I am who I am. I’m certainly not going to try and adopt a grand-style persona…
In terms of actual leadership style, this institution is quite feudal. We have 17 curatorial departments, many of which are equivalent to medium-size museums. One reason we are a place bursting with ideas and initiatives is that Philippe allowed and encouraged ideas to bubble up through the departments and he was very supportive of initiatives brought to him from his curatorial staff. Having experienced the benefits of that myself, I very much intend to maintain it.
One of the steps I will be taking this autumn is formulating a programmatic committee that will act as a forum … Up until this point the way exhibitions have been approved is that curators or department heads would bring a proposal to Philippe and he would say yes or no. I will still be the person who makes that decision, but at a time when we have got to make less go further, and I can’t green light everything, this is a forum in which the curatorial body itself – it will also have representatives from editorial, operations, education – will have to take a bit more responsibility for what is brought forward. But I see it as a constructive dialogue that I trust will make sure that projects that might be considered as cross-departmental have their possibility fully airedâ€¦
TAN: You want to maintain the direct encounter with a work of art, but people demand information. Is there enough information in the galleries?
TC: We need to find the right balance between creating a direct and meaningful encounter with a work of art without there being the impediment of an overly didactic contextualisation. At the same time, much of our audience is very sophisticated and wants a lot of information. .. We are at an exciting time because new technology does give us the opportunity to deliver all sorts of different levels of information to different audiences in a very discreet way. I think handheld devices and audio tours have huge potential beyond where they are now .. I don’t want to be overly typecast as being wonkish on technology, but I think it is one of the major frontiers at the moment because it has the potential to so enrich and transform the visitor experience.
The Met has put a lot of effort into the audio guides it supplies to exhibitions, and we have a certain amount of audio guide information for our permanent collections, but that is an area that needs to be hugely expanded. Then we need to enrich the different levels that people can get to. We also have to think of different languages so that our large international audience is properly catered to. The National Gallery in London, the Tate, the Louvre are all experimenting with devices that besides delivering an audio tour will deliver visuals on a handheld device. The danger is that there’s something so compelling about a digital image that all too quickly the object in front of you becomes an illustration to the narrative you’re holding in your hand.
TAN: British Museum director Neil MacGregor and his counterpart at the Tate, Nicholas Serota, recently differentiated US museums, deemed in thrall to their moneyed boards, from European and particularly British museums, which they maintain serve the public more directly.
TC: … At the end of the day, the Met has bought more objects, has organised more exhibitions, has undertaken more scholarly publications than any other museum in the world as a result, simply because of the enthusiastic support of the donors and our trustees. There’s this caricaturish notion that people fall back on … but my experience of our board is that it is comprised of individuals who take their role extremely seriously in terms of both advice or financial support.
… This is a great institution because of the farsighted support over so many years by individuals who are consciously contributing to build it and make it better.
The impression they were giving was that there was some sort of constraint. We are not constrained. On the contrary we have got the ability to go out and fundraise and find support for different initiatives that allow us to do things that very few European institutions are able to.
The Art Newspaper also published on its Museums page on 16 September a short article on the new Darwin Centre at The Natural History Museum in London.
In The Guardian for 17 July Maev Kennedy wrote, “One of the most startling additions to any British museum, the new £78m “cocoon” at the Natural History Museum in London – an enigmatic white blobby form eight storeys high and 65m long inside a giant glass box – will open to the public on 15 September, it was announced yesterday. Michael Dixon, the director of the museum, said he hopes the new building – properly known as the Darwin Centre, but dubbed the cocoon even by staff – will leave visitors “with a real sense of awe and wonder at nature”.
Further information is available at the Museum’s own website.
Those with a long memory might recall the bitterly critical comments which greeted the appointment and announced corporate plan of former primatologist and Open University Professor Dr Neil Chalmers, appointed director of the Museum in 1989. The Darwin Centre – this is Stage 2 – was a major project of (now) Sir Neil Chalmers who retired a couple of years ago to become Warden of Wadham College at Oxford University .
Here are some extracts from the commentary from that time. We can wonder how reliable the opinions and forecasts of doom were.
(I have put an article from 1990 about this issue in the essay section.)
In the 3 May 1990 issue of Nature, Henry Gee (“Taxonomy pays for bad image”), wrote, “Researchers at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London went on a one-day strike on 24th April to protest against the museum’s controversial 1990-95 corporate plan, which proposes the loss of 51 out of 300 research and curatorial posts during the next two years. Many of the tenured posts are to be replaced with short-term fellowships (see Nature 344: 805, 26 April 1990) a move that will improve the NHM’s financial health but may threaten its standing as a taxonomic research centre. On 26 April, the researchers resolved to strike again tomorrow (Friday, 4 May) if the museum’s director, Neil Chalmers refused to withdraw the plan.
“Scientists at other UK museums are concerned at the damage that might be done by the new plan.Â Taxonomic research, in which the NHM is pre-eminent, is “deeply unsexy”, according to Simon Conway Morris of the University of Cambridge, but is the “bedrock” of all biological research, and in the light of concern over decreasing global diversity the cuts come at “just the wrong time”. Andrew Knoll, of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University, finds it “a little sad” that the study of biodiversity in the United Kingdom is thought so marginal that the NHM will close departments “in which they have been major contributors”. Ken Joysey, curator of the Museum of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, condemned the cuts as “ludicrous”.
The issue was raised in the British Parliament: In the adjournment debate in the House of Commons on 21 June, Tam Dalyell MP pointed out that the real threat to Britain is not “the armies of Mr Gorbachev”, but global warming, the destruction of the ozone layer, acid rain and other environmental problems.Â He told the House how the Museum provides “crucial raw material for the battle against that threat”.
During the half hour allowed for the debate, Shadow Arts spokesman Mark Fisher MP joined Dalyell in pressing Richard Luce on funding for the Museum. Whilst supporting the approach set out in the Corporate Plan, Luce revealed that the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government is in discussion with the Director and the Chairman of Trustees about its wider implications.
An editorial in Nature on 2 August 1990 said, among other things, “The British Natural History Museum has taken too short and too jaundiced a view of it’s own future as a research institution. It should mend its ways, and quickly… What emerges most clearly from the long controversy is that the corporate plan .. was a serious error of judgment. Faced with the prospect of a nasty financial squeeze … the museum plumped for the wrong solution, that of cutting back on an already inadequate intramural research programme…. It would have been possible to cut back instead on the museum’s second function of mounting attractive public exhibitions…”
The editorial went on to repeat some of the claims about “unfortunate” language of the corporate plan, expresses doubts about whether the emphasis on ‘front of house’ activities would save the museum “from the troubles that lie ahead” and observed that entrance charges would not pay the extra cost of the exhibitions envisaged as bringing more visitors and therefore earnings. It asked, “should not the museum be making the case for relief from [further financial] squeezes [two or three years from now]?… It should also do more than has yet been done to show that there is substance in its hope that support for research at the museum will indeed be provided by the research councils..”
Two months later, 4 October 1990, a letter in Nature from Dr Colin Patterson and many distinguished scientists representing the “science defence committee” (of which Patterson was chairman) said, “The crisis at London’s Natural History Museum … has now lasted more than four months and shows no sign of ending.Â The essence of this crisis is that the plan will result… in narrowing the span of taxonomic and systematic research in this museum. .. About a thousand letters of protest have been sent to the relevant minister by our colleagues from all over the world who recognise that this museum is the world centre for taxonomic expertise… There have been two days of strikes; and there has been a storm of press comment, nearly all of it critical of the plan.
“A new management structure, with imposed separation of curation from research for some 150 people, has been forced down our throats, as has also a brutal system of short-term contracts for researchers. And our prizewinning design team is still threatened with extinction.Â Moreover, the director’s main response to the letters of protest is blandly to point out their usefulness in the search for funding, since they demonstrate that the taxonomic community of the whole world is interested in the fate of the Natural History Museum ..”
Some of these issues remain with us in various museums 20 years later. The Natural History Museum recovered to be one of the strongest museums in the World; the list of scientific publications by Museum staff for 2008-09 runs to 73 pages. Some other museums faced with reductions in funding and a lack of recognition by governments of the importance of taxonomy and evolutonary studies to the understanding and sustainability of biodiversity have not recovered!