Too many specialists?

Maurice Davies, 20.08.2013
When museums forget their public
Like many of you, I’ve been on holiday.

Until recently, I chose relatively culture-free holiday destinations, to get a break from art, museums and history.

But for the past few years our family’s summer holiday theme has been great European cities with a beach - and after Barcelona, Lisbon and, this year, Marseille, I can confirm that major European seaside cities tend to be well endowed with culture, not least as a result of centuries of looking outwards to the world.

Marseille, for example, has been trading across the seas for an astonishing 2,600 years, far longer than the nation of France has existed.

All that trade means some local people had lots of wealth, lots of curiosity and did lots of collecting, which today means lots of museums and galleries. So, like some of you, I had a bit of a busman’s holiday.

I’ve lost track of how many museums I visited, but Marseille is this year’s European Capital of Culture and so had several brand spanking new places to see.

What struck me is how the museums I visited differ in their attitude to visitors. Some of the new Marseille institutions clearly care more about good design and the reaction of their peers. Staff at the new Chateau Borély decorative arts museum seem to have devoted all their attention to the interior design of the building, obsessing over details of tiling and flooring.

As a result, many of the basics are badly neglected. The labelling was hopeless (some of it missing, six weeks after opening) and you couldn’t see some video screens because of reflections from the windows opposite.

In fact so busy had staff been fiddling with the look of the place, they appear to have failed to produce a standalone website.

Such basic failings suggest that the museum’s priority has not been to engage visitors and, indeed, I was happy to leave.

A different sort of curatorial obsession got in the way of my enjoyment of Marseille’s new Fond Régionaux d’Art Contemporain (FRAC).

FRACs exist all over France and in principle are a good thing. They, and I’m quoting here, “have had three fundamental missions: building a collection, disseminating it to the broadest, most diversified public and inventing ways to raise awareness around present-day creation”.

After an hour or so in Marseille’s FRAC I can confirm that it may indeed have successfully built a collection, but doesn’t seem to be doing so well at reaching a wide audience.

Their interest appears much more with the artists and the opinions of their fellow curators than engaging with local people - or even cultural tourists like yours truly.

Earlier in the year I had a similar experience in Finland, where research-driven curatorship remains strong. I encountered plenty of scholarly, elegantly installed displays and exhibitions, but they left me rather cold.

Compared to these well-resourced museums, stuffed with subject-specialist knowledge, and pursuing a more traditional and high-brow approach, it’s something of a relief to visit museums and galleries in the UK.

Of course, some of the staff responsible for museums here remain far too concerned about the reactions of their peers, but generally in the UK we have plenty to be proud of.

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.

It’s good to be back.


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Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
26.08.2013, 00:28
Nothing wrong with a busman's holiday especially so when taken abroad. I have always found visiting foreign museums absolutely fascinating. The National Art Gallery of Montenegro is the best so far: just me and a mate and a very underemployed museum assistant who gave us (the only visitors) a personal guided tour.

For every good museum ( the Warsaw Uprising Museum, Poland; the museums of the resistance in Riga and Tallinn, the folk and great patriotic war museums in Kyiv),there are some museums that rely totally on the fact they have great collections, but the visitor experience is absolute pants (to coin an academic phrase) such as the Louvre and the Hermitage to name but two tourist honey pots, which are the museum equivalent of being forced to read the encyclopedia britannica from cover to cover, while running on a treadmill.

J'adore les francais et leur culture mais la France is the land of soi-disant intellectuals so it would be amazing if they had not managed to build themselves a few reserves into which to escape from the ghastly anglo-saxons and our philistine tendencies. Vive la difference and learn from it.
21.08.2013, 18:40
For more than twelve years, I have specialised in Heritage Interpretation. I have worked in museum education, but usually find I am very unlikely to have a chance at such jobs. Museums look for curators or teachers. Yet I have found very few curators know the first thing about the principles and practice of interpretation while most teachers cannot escape the framework of formal learning. And all too often, design runs interpretation rather than being used to increase its power.
MA Member
20.08.2013, 19:12
A museum without specialists risks producing shallow displays, a museum with curators focused too much on academic research risks producing dry displays, or, more often, no displays. It can be tricky to get the correct balance, and some would argue that while Continental museums err on the academic side, British institutes err on the shallow side. There are some great examples of museums that get the balance spot on, but we should all strive to get the proper mix.