Sharon Heal

How permanent is permanent?

Sharon Heal, 19.09.2012
Should museums build more flexibility into capital projects?
There has been some discussion lately about the role of temporary exhibitions and permanent displays. The Museums Association's 2020 work has raised the question of how permanent we want our displays to be and if in fact we need them at all (see the October issue of Museums Journal for a feature on this).

This also raises the question of whether we should be building more flexibility into capital projects. Although some museums and galleries have attempted to do this, the norm still seems to be fixed displays that have to be refreshed after five to 10 years, creating a constant cycle of fundraising and redisplay – the director of a museum that had a £15m-plus renovation and reopened just six years ago recently told me that most of its displays needed refreshing.

Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow tried to build in flexibility to its permanent displays with the idea that the stories that are interwoven throughout the galleries could be changed and updated.

But the reality has been that the time and resources have not always been available to do that. And the public don’t notice if you tinker around the edges - just changing the labels and a couple of odd items here and there doesn't cut it.

An obvious way of making noticeable change is a good temporary exhibition programme, and despite budget squeezes many are still being planned. At a press event the other day a whole crop of exhibitions were launched at venues large and small ranging from Feast your Eyes at the Bowes Museum (October 2912) to Sebastiao Salgado at the Natural History Museum (April 2013) and Mary Queen of Scots at the National Museum of Scotland (November 2013).

Curating and producing temporary exhibitions can be creative, challenging and exciting but it is also exhausting, resource heavy and a drain on budgets. Some venues that only programme temporary exhibitions, Gallery Oldham for example, are looking to develop permanent displays to prevent what one curator described as the “treadmill’ of temporary exhibition making.

I was reminded of this temporary vs permanent vs flexible debate when touring the Museum of Liverpool with an enthusiastic young guide recently. This is one of the bigger capital projects of late and has the requisite architect-designed building with gallery after gallery of permanent displays.

Of course there is room for temporary exhibitions and events and community spaces, all the things that bring museums to life and encourage repeat visits, and the museum was brimming with punters on a very wet Wednesday.  

A percentage of flexibility has been built into the displays to allow them to be updated. The catch is that when budgets have been cut to the bone and it's a choice between closing venues or not refreshing displays, the displays lose out.

And sadly so does the visitor. Who said cuts don't impact on frontline services?


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Charlotte Pratley
MA Member
Gallery Assistant, Lakeside Arts Centre
18.10.2012, 09:47
Temporary exhibitions can encourage a more experimental approach if the treadmill attitude is overcome with fresh ideas and effective participation. Especially in galleries, I've encountered curators who view creating a community space at odds with high quality and are worried about the effect this will have on their white cube ideal. As Nina Simon ambitiously states in The Participatory Museum, "participatory institutions could change the world" and ensure cultural institutions are seen as an invaluable part of society so its a risk worth taking, even if its initially a struggle to convert colleagues to this less traditional way of thinking.