Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Solutions Series 4: The Resilient Museum (Guest Post by Pete from Newcurator.com)

The preface of this article is available over at newcurator.com. [Ed: Definitely read that first. - Kirsten]


The first stage would be a new position; one that aggressively pursues the autonomy of the [museum] community. In John Robb's words, this is to “protect from predatory and parasitical non-state actors” such as pan-global corporations and local militia. Whilst it may be true that banks have directly/indirectly threatened the financial stability of museums, it isn’t like there are armed gangs trying to co-opt museum service.

In the spirit of the argument, I would say large membership organisations and certain grant-making trusts are the closest comparison. I put into this category the AAM, the Museums Association, the Arts Council and any number of other redundant organisations where being included in/excluded from the club is more important than adaptability. They are either too unwieldy or unable to protect museums and their workers. The Resilient Museum community will look to replace these and provide the services themselves.

The same goes for political autonomy. A Resilient Museum cannot perform under them whims of a politician's promises. I wonder how many museum directors are scared to act for fear of alarming or alerting their politicos of how museums function in case they get pillaged.

How a museum can fully pry itself away is one of those complicated questions with a very complex answer:

Imagine a possible Resilient Museum Community for a moment. It would ideally consist of a low number of small to medium sized museums in order to be flexible and quick to act. For the greatest practical benefit they would be located relatively close together. An interesting debate could be had about whether or not these museums would need to have similar collection policies or if they could have diverse missions.

By staying mobile and intelligent, the Community would aim to become self sufficient. It can only achieve this if workers are central to the cause. This is a tribe. The tribe will work for the good of the Tribe. Everything within the Community is shared. All goods and intellectual property going out of the Community are sold. This includes good ideas, best practice and winning formulas.

The Community's legal structure would need to be rethought and a new relationship with the public would need to be negotiated. “Holding in the public trust” seems so ironic when a museum is sinking. That whole tenet would need a rethink as a Resilient Museum Community wouldn't need to be such martyrs to the cause. “Nonprofit” doesn't have to mean cap-in-hand piety. I'm not an expert and the research is confusing, but I wonder about the possibilities of museums run as worker cooperatives in order to motivate and empower the staff.

Next, a Resilient Museum Community would include shared collections and shared resources. Each museum could retains its own management and staff but otherwise make every effort to collaborate. The idea isn't to create a supermuseum; such mergers lead to staff layoffs. It would mean a deep-rooted partnership. Each museum in an example community of ten museums has nine other venues for a travelling exhibition. There are possibilities for ten permanent exhibitions from across all types of collections. This would keep the museums fresh and interesting with a high turnover of content. Bureaucratic barriers would also be reduced. Technological upgrades could be bought for the whole Community, hopefully at a lower bulk cost. The Community could make one amazing website and copy it to the others, make one amazing mobile app and brand it for each, put each collection into the same powerful API, make decent use of social networks for all… There are many possibilities. Volunteers could be organised and shared to an incredible degree of effectiveness. The Community would do everything itself or take steps to create its own production.

I can almost hand the next step over to Nick Poole's Second Proposal: Cut back the collections to sensible levels. I'm not talking about auctioning off the family silver, gold and Rembrandts. I'm talking about being able to make a serious decision about the fifteen replicas of the same bit of cheap trash. Not everything can be saved. Not everything needs to be saved. There's plenty of other stuff and new stuff being made all the time. Remove those object that really do not fit your collection policy. Auction them, sell them to other museums if needs be; make some money that goes right back into the museum. A Resilient Museum Community would allow for quick, efficient collection management. Resilience means having to reduce the costs of the heating/cooling/lighting of storage. Maybe a mass sell-off of storage buildings and the building of one single site. All the ethics and decision making committees can be run in-house. Each Community can have its own ethical guidelines and procedures. The consequences are the Community’s own.

With the structure in place, a highly efficient collection, a highly motivated staff and a defined physical area, there could be any number of profitable outcomes to be explored.


Pete writes at newcurator.com.You can follow him on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant... Thumbs up to you - I liked this very much and think it's useful!