Setting the record straight

Maurice Davies, 09.09.2013
Maurice Davies explains himself
My recent blogs have generated quite a lot of heat – and not necessarily that much light.

I thought it might be helpful to set out, in plain language, the propositions I made in those blogs, so the people who disagreed with me so passionately can respond again if they still disagree with me. To clarify exactly what I said, I’ll try to be more measured and restrained in my expressions than previously.

First, I said it was a pleasure to visit museums and galleries in the UK, compared to some museums I’d encountered in France and Finland that seem to over-emphasise design and worry too much about the reactions of their peers.

I praised the fact that in the UK there’s much more energy devoted to visitor engagement and a genuine desire to meet the needs and interests of a wide range of people.

Why would anyone disagree with that positive comment about UK museums?

Next, I cited a couple of national news stories that featured museum people saying rather daft things and members of the public saying very sensible things. Most of the museum people happened to be curators, so I called the blog Stupid curators.

That was of course a gesture of cheap sensationalism, but it did at least get people’s attention. Unfortunately some of the people who commented don’t appear to have properly read the article itself. The four main points I made there were:

One, it’s a shame that some museums are like an "audit of life" rather than a celebration of life. They put audiences off if they deaden things, rather than bring them to life for audiences.

Two, museums have a significant difficulty because they are still dominated by an essentially 19th century technology - putting things in glass cases or on the wall with little labels.

Three, museums also have a difficulty if they believe preserving things for the future is more important than providing enjoyment (and learning and inspiration) for people today.

And four, it’d be good if, as some members of the public suggest, the National Maritime Museum and the National Gallery of Australia could agree to share two paintings by George Stubbs that they are fighting over.

Does anyone working in a modern, 21st century museum really disagree with these points?

Finally, last week, I praised the new museum in Barnsley for its object-rich displays and I praised the nascent Migration Museum.

I explored the interesting fact that both museums work closely with objects, but do not intend to acquire large permanent collections. That makes me question the value of some large, stored, undisplayed collections – quite an important issue in view of the huge financial and environmental costs of storing collections.

Perhaps that’s a challenge to some established museum thinking, but you must admit it’s a point worth thinking about seriously, especially as many museums struggle with high fixed costs. Perhaps provoked too much by my inflammatory titles, someone described my thoughts as "a violent and damaging over-reaction".

I was told "an organisation that borrows existing museum collections is actually a circulation or outreach service, not a museum", which had me wondering where the commenter thought that left branches of national or local authority museums?

One person thought (or perhaps hoped), posts that include words like "Community Engagement", "Community Curator","Outreach", or "Partnership" are a "fad or fashion".

Alarmingly, one person claimed: "The essential fact is that a museum is a collection of objects and the preservation of those objects is the curator's job.

"They… look after the objects, study them and make them accessible… This includes interpreting them and telling their stories for the education and enjoyment of the public.

"So often though, I have seen objects in the hands of non-curatorial museum staff who are basically giving over wrong information."

Can that latter point really be true? If so, it’s an indictment of the museums concerned.

The largest number of comments very sensibly say that the heart of the issue is the balance between a museum’s varied activities and responsibilities.

That’s right - but the issue remains: where, precisely, should that balance be in the 21st century at a time of austerity?

Comments

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Anonymous
25.09.2013, 15:45
I predicted that there would a diminishing of the type of community history/engagement/curator post, and a re-focusing onto core strengths. The Museum of London's aximg of these teams from their service will be just the beginning of a re-balancing. Sadly some services, always behind the times, have recently created such posts and teams, at the expense of core strengths. Now they are having to make big cuts as a result of the government's enforced austerity measures.
http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/25092013-mol-confirms-17-redundancies?utm_source=ma&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=25092013
Anonymous
MA Member
14.09.2013, 09:16
Some of your blog posts are provocatively titled, then you say they've generated more heat than light. If people feel offended, maybe you should apologise to them. I think I'm right in saying that some (1/2) of the people involved in your examples of people acting in ways you don't agree with were curators, but they were still only 1/2- yet it still becomes 'stupid curators', obvious for all to see on the internet. You may have got people's attention, but do you honestly think it's been helpful or constructive? At a time of financial crisis, people should be pulling together- as many already do. Of course this is not to say that museums should go without challenge- but demeaning particular roles (deliberately or not) is demoralising.
Anonymous
MA Member
12.09.2013, 14:31
Google 'Stupid Curators' and take a look at the list, is this really what you want to see? Pure gold in a cost cutting argument. Discussing how you might have been misunderstood and taken out of context in this forum is one thing but are you going to go around and explain this to all who could potentially use it out of context to cut services? Debate and feedback are two of the greatest tools we have in advancing ideas and I embrace the diversity in opinion across the sector but with this should come caution – remember this is going out to the www......
Anonymous
MA Member
12.09.2013, 13:21
Couldn't agree more with the comments made by 11.09./10:57. It seems to me that Maurice is provocative for the sake of being provocative. I imagine him sitting around thinking of ever more extreme things to wind up the museum profession. Nothing wrong with that except it is coming from the Head of Policy & Communication at the Museums Association! Maurice has a very priviliged influential position and he is not using it to benefit the sector at a time when we are all under threat. And I'm sorry but it isn't good enough to say that you've offended people ever since school and you don't intend to change. Your behaviour is doing more than offending - it is alienating and disenfranchising significant numbers in the sector and you seem to take great delight in it. We want the MA to be our voice, be positive and influential with stakeholders and this behaviour is falling far short of that.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
12.09.2013, 10:59
Re the comment below 11/9 10.57 - and preceding comments, I don't think we'll get anywhere at all in progressing the discussion if it continues to focus on the relatively trivial issue of which jobs are the most important and should have the greatest status.

The point, surely, is to maximise museums' public impact and benefit. That's what matters because that's what we're *all* paid for. And increasing public benefit underlies all of my comment pieces and all my work at the MA.

I recognise that I'm provocative in the way I do it. Clearly some don't like that, but since school I've always offended some people and sorry, can't see it changing. (I guess, it's my part Jewish, part-GB Communist/Old Labour, part-Grammar school, part-academic and more recently part-Italian background - all things that encourage people to argue robustly and forcefully...)
Anonymous
12.09.2013, 15:05
I am sorry, I just do not agree that the issue of which jobs are of critical importance is a trivial matter. It is not about status, it is about getting the balance right between the types and numbers of posts, and the relationships between them, making operational sense. The approach needs to be both from grass roots of service delivery, by understanding existing service delivery, and the communities served, and also top down, understanding the political priorities that we as a sector have to respond to. The reality of viable service delivery will be somewhere in between and will be the key to organisational success. I too can be opinionated, and sometimes provocative, but I think and reflect carefully before I speak. In my opinion, based on observation and experience over many years, is that the best leaders in our sector, who have brought about significant advances are those with the qualities I articulated in
Anonymous
10.09.2013, 22:39
and as exemplified by Thomas Campbell in his eloquent TED talk. Articulate, passionate, a wide and deep knowledge base, and walks the decks. I have also seen the opposite scenario, currently, and I have never felt so poorly led. We all know these are hard times, but that makes it even more important that the sector has the kinds of leaders I am talking about.

Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
12.09.2013, 11:00
Sorry meant to write 'upbringing' rather than 'background'
Anonymous
MA Member
11.09.2013, 10:57
I find it very interesting that most comments are posted anonymously – except of course Maurice. Maurice you live in a protected world. You are, it seems, paid to give an opinion and rattle the sector when at present we need some uniting strategies and some sound planning. You may say ‘I’ve done that with the 2020 work’ but I think you need to honestly assess how well that has been received and championed by sector (or not). After all that investment has it really hit the mark? Honestly? It seems you are becoming the Quentin Letts of the museum world. You seem to take glee in writing comment that you know will explode the sector. And then you relish your second helping of glee as the negative responses come in. And you can do that as you have power in the organisation that pays you. You are safe. Most of those responding are not and are scared of losing jobs, status or both. Until you come out from your protected place please stop looking down on everyone else as little stupid people (or curators). You may say that is not your intention but that is the real impact you are having. Stop telling people to reread sentence a or b in your blog as then they can see you really meant xxx. If the overall tone and phrasing of your work is critical and condescending then that is how the reader will feel at the end of your pieces. I am only sorry that the MA thinks it suitable to have someone as influential and senior in the organisation kicking others in the sector on a regular basis, instead of supporting or helping them. Constructive criticism is helpful but the criticism barrage you seem to employ is wounding. There are ways of doing things Maurice and you seem to adopt the ‘I’m allowed to do what I like and s*d what you think’ way. All of us know the sector has to find solutions in this challenging environment of less money. Help us share that learning instead of smirking and humiliating anyone who finds the change challenging. I for one am just going to stop reading anything by you. There are a lot interesting developments out there in the sector which I want to know about. I am not interested in reading the constant criticism and negative personal judgements that you seem to enjoy peddling, as you watch us all from your protected ivory tower.
Anonymous
10.09.2013, 22:39
Hello, it was me who thought (not hoped) that posts that include words like "Community Engagement Curator", "Community Curator","Outreach", or "Partnership" are a "fad or fashion". Definitely not a hope, it is what I think will be the case, that in time the prevalence of this type of post will diminish. Not because it is not a good idea, or that they do not provide a valuable service in helping to grow links to communities. If these sorts of posts are in addition to core strengths and posts, well and good. The trouble is, and I have seen it firsthand, is that expertise is sidelined as knowledge based curatorial posts are deleted, frozen, and replaced by posts that are not knowledge based. You need both types of roles, but the balance is not right. I think eventually this will be realised. The core function, or strength, of museums is to draw out and share the narratives that form collective memory by studying and understanding the information that is intrinsic to our only links with the past, objects that have survived the journey to date. This is done for the benefit of visitors, present and future, in the hopes that there will be some positive effect in people's lives, and more widely for the society we share. We all know that already. Emasculating core strengths will not help achieve that outcome, and that it is happening is not good. I go on about core strengths because I am a bit of a Royal Navy history anorak, but there are good analogies to be drawn. If the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic Wars had not focused on, and invested in continually, a few really key core strengths, it is much less likely that the Royal Navy would have prevailed against its enemies. Our sector is really dependent on dynamic, charismatic and creative leaders. My experience, in our sector, has been that leadership gravitates naturally to people who are very articulate, empathetic, have a subject knowledge that is wide and deep, and most of all, they are passionate and enthusiastic about their subject. Without enough people with those qualities working in positions of authority in art galleries and museum services the visitor offer will stagnate. I will not be the only person to have noticed this happening. And to be honest I do not think the solutions are really that complicated, though application, of course, is another issue. But the solutions do stem from those leadership qualities listed.
Brendan Carr
MA Member
Community Engagement Curator, Reading Museum Service
11.09.2013, 00:30
Perhaps Community Engagement Curators can nurture links with communities and see to the other core functions. There's quite a lot evidence of what we might now term 'Community Engagement' being carried by curators in my museum dating back to early years. .

I understand why people post anonymously on this forum because now if you google my name with the word 'museum' (as I do most evenings) all you get is links to me muttering on about something here!

Anonymous
11.09.2013, 10:09
Following on from what I wrote about the qualities of leaders we need in our sector, this TED talk by Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, about weaving narratives in museums, is very illustrative of the points I am trying to make: that, here in the UK at any rate, somewhere along the path to making collections accessible, relevant, and getting greater engagement with a wider range of audiences, the plot has been lost, and core strengths have been neglected; and that in principle, the solutions are not complicated. Mr Campbell is an example of the sort of leader I am talking about, articulate, with a wide and deep knowledge base, passionate, empathetic, and who walks the decks.

http://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_p_campbell_weaving_narratives_in_museum_galleries.html
Brendan Carr
MA Member
Community Engagement Curator, Reading Museum Service
18.09.2013, 00:13
I took from this talk that Campbell had listened well to his tutor, and as a result encourages passionate scholarship from his curators, underpinned with a jargon-busting and instinctive approach to the interpretation of material culture. Rather than detracting from this, community engagement and outreach work is entirely complimentary and informs such practice.
Anonymous
MA Member
12.09.2013, 00:00
Those who post things on the Internet anonymously probably don't have the courage of their convictions,... Doh! But yeah sure, an award winning photogragher recommended the TED website to me some time ago so I'll check this hyperlink out some time, cheers.
Anonymous
MA Member
12.09.2013, 07:37
I think it's extremely unfair to suggest that anonymous posters lack conviction. Posting anything on the Internet using the name of the organisation you work for, without receiving clearance from management, is a sackable offence, regardless of whether we're writing in our own time or not. There's no *maybe* about this, it just is. It may be seen as harsh to fire someone for such a thing, but it does happen.

The MA website currently has a choice between posting name, job title and organisation or anonymous. Perhaps if there was also a middle choice of posting under our name, but without dragging work into it at all, there would be less anonymity? But in a climate where firing could save thousands of pounds of redundancy pay out, is it worth the risk?
Anonymous
MA Member
17.09.2013, 23:07
Probably lack, not definitely (I lack the courage of my conviction y'see - nothing to be particularly ashamed of!). I guess if our postings were to receive management clearance then we would have no hesitation to include our name, rank and number, and so I do apologise for being extremely unfair. I have anonymously 'Liked' your reply to make up. Perhaps the best antidote to the risk of redundancy or unfair dismissal is to perform an indispensable service. We all strive to do this but conclusions about what it is that matters most vary. Certainly the days seem numbered when we could, at public expense, doing no more than spend a lifetime undisturbed in developing subject knowledge, never to be shared through a decent level of documentation. Priorities determined locally by ethically astute public servants, listening carefully and adapting what museums do to change lives, that's what I say. "Public-friendly curator'' -#classic!
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
11.09.2013, 10:20
Hi Anonymous - we love that TED Talk too, and posted it here on the MA website: http://www.museumsassociation.org/video/19022013-thomas-p-campbell-ted-talk
Anonymous
MA Member
10.09.2013, 12:51
It is not the base points you make which I disagree with. It is your ill thought out justification of these points that is the issue. Is that not clear? Curators are not all out-of-touch and your attempts to paint them as that, under the guise of a “debate” which is polarised from the start and then misquoting many of the responses to suit yourself, is unhelpful, inaccurate and not helping anyone.

For example, my problem is NOT that you say that exhibitions are better in Britain, because they target wider audiences. It is because you heavily implied that these “UK” exhibitions are only better because curators have not been involved! Furthermore, you go on to say all “other problems in museums are due to curators”! This is the erroneous justification I am talking about. It is totally wrong and undermines the claims of the MA as “representative of the museum sector”. This is not a miss-reading of your blogs. It is what you actually said! So don’t come over all “I am so misunderstood”. The reality is, we do understand what you say, we agree with aspects but not others. Yes, we need a diverse range of skills within museums however, this must include (good) curators.

Another example is that you contend that all curators and some museums think that they are only about the future. I don’t believe any of them do actually. It just suits your argument to portray them as such and it is wrong. However, what most museums (and curators) do realise that part of their existence is to ensure important heritage is accessible now AND in the future. The public mostly agree with this, if you read the MA’s own research on this. This is why your puzzlement, that more museums don’t jettison everything now, is so shocking as it clearly demonstrates a lack of awareness about ALL the important services many museums provide to society (i.e. not just exhibitions and outreach). As said previously, stored collections should not be judged solely on their “usefulness” today but should be viewed from a much broader perspective which considers their historical, cultural and or scientific value and its importance to society’s heritage amongst a plethora other things.

This same rubbish is also reflected in how the MA has behaved recently. For example, purposely writing out curatorial and preservation impacts from “Museums 2020” (as stated by Mark Taylor) and airbrushing the benefits of curators out of “Collections for the Future” and only valuing collections that are used (to only mention a couple of examples)! This is where the problems are. Great museums need good curators and it is about time the MA realised this and did something to reverse the damaging trend of decreasing curator numbers rather than “cheap sensationalism”. Best practice models, advocacy and the accreditation scheme should all include and make clear the vital need museums have for curatorial skills. However we have nothing on this from the MA. Why?

The major difficulties in Museums are not curators; it is that museums are under resourced. This has been happening for years. This is where museums need support. So stop wasting your time and our money and get on and lobby those politicians who have cut funding again and again. Getting rid of collections, curators and buildings is not the answer. Neither is pitting one museum job role against another. So can we please move on and actually have something useful for a change?

Finally, It is nice to see that I have been misquoted considering your prostrations about being misunderstood! Calling curators the route of all evil in museums is what I said was a violent and damaging over-reaction. So get the quote right next time! It is hard enough believing anything you say already. Can you really not actually see how damaging you are being? If so, you will sadly keep undermining yourself and the MA without hope of meaningful improvement in museums.

Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
10.09.2013, 13:07
This is hysterical - and probably libellous. I did not misquote you, assuming you are the same 'anonymous' that I was looking at. The comment I quoted talked precisely of: 'a violent and damaging over reaction along the lines of what you said in a blog on the official MA website.'

Worse, you claim I 'go on to say all “other problems in museums are due to curators” '. Where on earth did I write that errant nonsense?

We'll get nowhere with false accusations, will we? Perhaps you'd now like to retract your falsehoods and engage properly in discussion?
Anonymous
MA Member
10.09.2013, 13:59
Yes, oops, where did I get that from?! You are right that we will get no where misquoting and making false accusations. I retract that statement and apologies.

I do feel however that blogs entitled "Stupid Curators" and "Too Many Specialists" does imply an deeply unfair and negative generalisation to what are important roles in museums. Perhaps that is where I got it from.

Anonymous
MA Member
09.09.2013, 21:53
Perhaps the blogs were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are a lot of curators and specialists out there (employed and otherwise) who are wondering what on earth is happening to their dying profession and the collections that are at more risk now than for a generation, as the result of inexpert collections reviews and stagnation. Many are also wondering what the MA are doing about it and whether our membership fee is still worth paying. With this in mind, to be faced with a blog that appears at first glance to cast curators in a very poor light, was not too sensitive.

I agree with some of the points raised, (most are hardly radical). The examples of curators advocating shotgun accessibility and a 19th century approach to exhibition design I would argue are more stereotypical than representative and probably indicative of the appalling levels of funding some museums receive. Glass cases may be old hat, but they're cheap and a resource most museums already have in stock.

The main thing I'd like to throw in to the debate is to disagree that mass borrowing is an alternative to permanent collections. I believe this is a very dangerous idea and not one that the MA should appear to advocate. First of all, swapping between a long term retention policy to a borrowing policy would result in the mass disposal of irreplaceable collections, which I would hope is something the MA wouldn't approve of. This has happened before and could easily happen again. If borrowing became accepted practise nationally, exactly who would you borrow from? Even if only a few authorities maintained a permanent collection and others did not, how would you obtain material with local connections? Is it fair for one group of tax payers to essentially subsidise a museum in another local authority, by the provision of 150 years of prior storage and preservation? And if the lending authority charged the borrowing authority for the value of said preservation and storage, wouldn't it be cheaper to have stored it yourself? From an ethical point if view, I would argue that if an LA believes that it's local heritage is important, it should pay to preserve it. To do otherwise is hypocritical. I'm sure that Barnsley and the Migration Museums are lovely, but how much better could they have been with collections that had been collated and honed by experienced curators throughout the last 150 years?
Anonymous
MA Member
09.09.2013, 21:39
I'm starting to wonder if the reason you write these articles is not because you believe passionately in museums or the people who work in them, but because you want clickbait.

The insistence from you that people cannot read properly is rather passive aggressive and in a world where funding is being cut to many museums, the fact that you as a policymaker take a blaise attitude towards curators and collections obviously angers people. It's not YOUR job hanging in the balance, after all.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
10.09.2013, 12:27
These days, 'clickbait' does for good or ill tend to be part of the remit. And it's hard to be that nuanced in a few hundred words. My aim is not be be blase, but to stimulate debate. It's terrible how many people are losing their jobs (and out latest survey on that comes out in a few weeks), but surely the best way to try to preserve your role is not best done by being defensive, but by reacting constructively to changed circumstances.
Anonymous
MA Member
09.09.2013, 20:32
Maurice, you come across like one of those people who loves being "provocative" but actually hates disagreement and criticism yourself. This whole article was just defensive stonewalling, brushing aside salient points and cherry picking a few isolated statements to sound unelightened from the many you had to choose from. I think you really need to stop and consider whether you are really helping the many beleaguered yet passionate museum workers and would-be workers out there during this depression with this combative attitude. I for one would value more diverse and positive voices coming out of the Museums Association.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
10.09.2013, 12:30
For the record, I really appreciate the trouble people are taking to disagree with me and criticise what I write. If I ever stop learning and developing from criticism, I should be put out to grass! Please keep commenting, and so keep increasing the diversity of voices on this website.
09.09.2013, 23:05
Maurice, keep stirring - we must be innovative about making collections relevant to ordinary people's lives - especially in a time of austerity when museum budgets are in the firing line!
Lee Davies
Assistant Botanist, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens
10.09.2013, 08:56
and here is the thing; there are ways and means of doing this. you can be challenging and make curators look at their practice and how museums can best highlight their relevance and importance. Or you can not be at all helpful and have blogs like these frankly crapping on the very specialists this association is supposed to be championing.
Anonymous
MA Member
09.09.2013, 23:12
See, this is the thing. You are acting as if curators do not care about making collections relevent to people's lives- we already do. Ivory tower curators are largely a thing of the past.

Get with the times and stop acting like everyone is against you simply because they disagree with some of your methods of dialogue.