Scratching my loaf

Maurice Davies, 11.11.2013
Surprise and bewilderment at Conference 2013
It’s the first day of this years’ brilliant Museums Association Conference and Exhibition 2013, and I’m on the lookout for the unexpected. Arriving late for a session this afternoon, I was surprised to be prevented from getting into the room by a large group of brightly-costumed people. I later learned that they waiting to charge into the room and do a “takeover”.

They are members of Uplift, whose wonderful mission in life appears to be to give a boost to people who are feeling low. They originate from that place of wonders, Barnsley, whose new museum made me so happy a few months ago.

Also unexpected was the preponderance of bread-based similes. 

Shadow culture minister Helen Goodman gave a classic politician’s non-reply to a question about something-or-another when she said : “It’s not so much the icing on the cake as the cheese in the sandwich”. I had no idea what she was talking about, but it did make me think, like Homer Simpson: “Mmmmm, cheese.”‎

Then, in the following session, Natasha Hutcheson who works for museum development in the East of England compared museum development to “the yeast you sprinkle in the bread”. That image left me even more puzzled.

But the most bizarre moment of the day was undoubtedly National Gallery director Nick Penny’s contribution to the session What did the nationals ever do for us? 

Penny is a man who evidently knows a hundred (often contradictory) different ways to say: “No”. We can safely assume nothing will change on his watch, except for a few nice acquisitions.

He had marvellously art-historical reasons for why the National Gallery couldn’t lend too much. For one thing, it would contradict the fundamental concept of an art collection, which should be “relatively stationary”. He hates the idea of a museum seeing itself as a “lending library”.

For similar reasons, it would assuredly not be desirable for the National Gallery to create a branch outside London. 

He suggested that the Louvre’s new branch in Lens in northern France might in fact make it harder for some French people to see the Louvre’s collection. The implication seemed to be that it is in some way anti-regional to open a regional branch.

And, of course, Penny insisted, it’s quite inconceivable that international loan shows could tour to regional venues - the overseas lenders would never agree to that! At one point he seemed to suggest that it might be better to pay for people to travel to London than to tour exhibitions nearer to them.

The contradictions mounted as he then said that in fact the National Gallery was about to do a regional tour of one of its paintings – and in fact he’d quite like a network of regional partner galleries. On the other hand, he mused, perhaps there wasn’t enough room in regional galleries for more old master paintings, as so much space seems to be taken up with educational activities and contemporary art.

It was a bravura performance, remarkably out of step with everything else at the conference, and all the more unexpected for that.


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David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
21.11.2013, 12:52
I'm sure Maurice isn't saying that everyone should be 'in-step', so the comparison with authoritarian Olympic ceremonies is really quite strange...I think the point he's making is that the MA Conference was relevant to the modern world and notable for its attachment to collaborative working, among various other things that seem to have been missing from Penny's talk.
MA Member
15.11.2013, 22:59
It is reassuring to know there is some biodiversity and creative tension at the top of the museum/art gallery world.

It would be a bit worrying if everyone in museums has to be 'in-step' because that makes me think of the kind of culture you get at the start of Olympic ceremonies put on by authoritarian regimes.