Owain Rhys (L); Simon Cane (R)

The conversation

Simon Cane and Owain Rhys, Issue 118/09, p18, 01.09.2018
What future is there for collections expertise in museums in the next decade?
Dear Owain:

My initial reaction to this crucial question is, if there is going to be a future for collections, then there has to be a future for collections expertise. Perhaps the question we are really asking is what do we consider to be collections expertise in the future? Is it all about management of the asset – care, conservation and use – or is it about connoisseurship? The latter seems to be increasingly arcane, while the former fails to address the potential for museum collections to offer insights into the human condition and the global challenges that we face.

Best wishes, Simon

Dear Simon:

I agree that the question is to do with the meaning of expertise. While I believe that it should continue to be about the care of collections, maybe there’s a need to develop expertise around relevance and access, both internal and external – who owns the collections, and who is allowed to use them? Connoisseurship does sound arcane – I would propose instead to democratise expertise, so that museum staff other than curators have easier access, that procedures for taking them out of stores are simplified, and that external voices have a say on how they are used and interpreted.

Best wishes, Owain
 
Dear Owain:

The role of the expert in museums is increasingly challenged, as a result of digital and social media, and our publics are more informed and demanding than ever. As issues of ownership, decolonisation and repatriation move to the forefront of the debate, isn’t there a danger that we throw the expertise baby out with the bath water? We agree that collections expertise is critical to opening up and democratising collections, but I feel that there is something around the relationship between expertise and trust that we are in danger of missing.

Best wishes, Simon

Dear Simon:

Digitisation of collections and social media interaction should be essential tools for collection expertise. These levels of access and interpretation are now expected by our publics. But I’m not advocating a watering down of trust and expertise – I see the need for experts to have a breadth of experiences, not only in-depth knowledge about objects and research, but an ability to engage with different communities, understand different perspectives and accept different needs and expectations. This will lead to a culture of sharing expertise, making collections more accessible and dynamic.

Best wishes, Owain

Dear Owain:

The government’s recently published Digital Strategy shows approaches to digital are maturing and our understanding of the possibilities is increasing. I wonder how this aspect is being woven into museum studies curriculums, as it is clearly a critical tool in opening up collections and developing relationships with communities and publics. I can’t lose the nagging thought that this direction of travel could result in the loss of subject specialist knowledge, but I have no doubt that we need to open up collections. If the future is dynamic collections, then we need to develop dynamic expertise.

Best wishes, Simon

Dear Simon:

We generally agree on the need for collections expertise to broaden, but without losing an existing knowledge base. You may have touched on something regarding museum studies – I can’t remember how interwoven my modules on digital collections and community engagement were, or even if they existed. Certainly, it’s worth investigating whether academic institutions are reacting to developments proactively, training young professionals so that they have a range of expertise. To reiterate, this should not be a future with less expertise, but a future of dynamic expertise.

Best wishes, Owain

Simon Cane is the executive director at UCL Culture. Owain Rhys is the community engagement and participation manager at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales).

Simon Cane and Owain Rhys are part of the steering group for Collections 2030, a Museums Association research project looking into the long-term purpose, use and management of collections. A discussion paper will be published this month

Comments

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Anonymous
07.09.2018, 09:19
What most people forget in an increasingly speedy world is that expertise cannot be acquired without time. Expertise also takes work. A lot of work. That elitist thing called in-depth, patient and determined study. Over a lifetime. A curator never stops learning. The internet has made that process easier than it would have been ten years ago, but the time and work still has to be put in. Once one has done enough of that to feel confident, then one can use that knowledge in whichever way is needed. It is the way which the knowledge is used which seems to be being talked about here. Curators jobs' involve a lot more multi-tasking than they used to, and thinking more originally and laterally and creatively, and absolutely, this is a good thing.

However don't overlook the fact that this is all happening just at the same time as curators' jobs are being lost. Senior posts, which have involved 20-30 years' worth of accumulated expertise, are not being replaced and their essential tasks are being parcelled up and shoved onto their remaining colleagues to save money. Said remaining colleagues try to do this while already buckling at the knees with stress and overwork, but expertise drains out with this process like water down the plughole.

All your idealistic thoughts about dynamic opening up of collections and greater public access are all very well in theory, but public access to real objects requires supervision by real staff - and who is there left to do this? Most museums are too short-staffed to allow this to happen very often. Access to objects digitally is a good alternative, indeed but that needs regular updating of records and databases - and that takes time, expertise and staff often in very short supply too.