The end of permanence

Maurice Davies, 09.04.2014
How attitudes to collections have changed
I’m leaving the MA after 25 years, so I’m looking at the key changes in UK museums over the past quarter century.
Last week I argued that the most significant change has been that museums are now far closer to people than they used to be.

Museum attitudes to collections have changed, too. In the early 1990s, there was a strong belief that once something entered a museum collection it should remain there, being carefully preserved for ever.

Museums, as the saying went, ingested, but did not excrete. Disposal was seen as a problem area, something to be avoided.

In part this was because of lack of confidence and an over-literal relativism that led some curators (and conservators) to be reluctant to make judgments about what things in collections were the most important – and therefore which ones might be unimportant and so not worth keeping.

'Who are we to judge what the future might value' was a common view, as was 'we must respect the decisions of our predecessors who built up these collections'.

Things changed, in part because of the Museums Association’s seminal Collections for the Future report. Thanks to brilliant work by Helen Wilkinson collaborating closely with then MA president Jane Glaister, the report confronted difficult truths about museum collections. It was the time that museums admitted they did have underused treasures hidden away in store.

The key message, which UK museums warmly embraced, was that collections need to be used if they are to bring benefit. This simple philosophy led to a raft of improvements.

It gave museums the authority and confidence to judge the value of things in their collections, based on their potential use. One result has been widespread adoption of collections reviews.

It also gave museums the intellectual framework in which to make decisions about disposal, something that is now a normal part of collections management.

Other significant changes in attitudes to collections include, first, an understanding that preserving huge amounts of stuff is not automatically a benefit for the future – indeed it may be a burden, especially if it consumes excessive amounts of energy and other resources, a point made in the MA’s influential Sustainability and Museums campaign.
Second, the work of Jonathan Ashley Smith and others made it very clear than conservators couldn’t possibly preserve things for ever, rather conservation is about managing change.

Third, museums accepted, albeit reluctantly, that there are exceptional circumstances in which selling collections to generate money can serve the long-term public benefit. Since that acceptance, there have been remarkably few ‘financially motivated’ disposals from UK museums, on average around one a year.

Taken together, these changes mean that we can’t any longer regard museum collections as ‘permanent’. Indeed, the term ‘permanent collection’, common 25 years ago, is now rather unusual.

And the term ‘permanent display’ is unusual too, as museums accept that knowledge and their audiences interests change constantly, so they want their galleries to be more flexible.

It’s not only because of spending cuts that 21st century museums feel far less permanent than they did in the 1990s.