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Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The problem with auctions

Have you ever wondered how it is museums have the things they have? Sure, the stuff might be old - but they haven't always been there and collections are always growing and changing. Donations are a core way we add to the collections, but things don't always come free. From time to time, when we are able to scrape together the funds, curators head to the auction house to bid on a new addition. The problem is... so does everyone else. 

Buying at an auction is a terrifying right of passage for the curator. So many things can do wrong even before you arrive for the big day - did you do all the right provenance research, did you get the approval of your spending limit, are the estimates rights, did you feel out the registration, do you have the right photo idea?! Then there you are in the room as the lot numbers are called and the auctioneer leads the bidding - a strange dance of nods and paddles, bidders on the phone, last minute bids placed online. To win your desires lot is thrilling - your colleagues congratulate you as you jot down the final numbers. To lose can be devastating, as you watch the numbers skyrocket beyond the maximum you have on your spreadsheet.

Such was the feeling I had recently at an auction as I watched a painting sail above my maximum limit to an unknown bidder on the phone. But it would fit so perfectly with my collection, I had wanted to use it in an upcoming exhibition, wouldn't it be great for researchers - gone in a flash, with no recourse. It put me in mind of the famous line from India Jones, 'that belongs in a museum!' and indeed it did.

The idea that museums are fancy, privileged institutions with loads of cash to splash out with at Christies or Sotheby's is an incredibly damaging myth with little basis in fact. While some institutions may have a healthy acquisitions budget, for the most part we scrimp and save, beg and plead, pitch for external funding to even have enough cash to bother coming along to an auction. And the worst part is, we go in knowing that we are most likely going to be outbid by private collectors anyway.

Now here is the thing that gets me really riled up - it makes me mad that people buy historic objects for their own enjoyment rather than either letting a museum purchase them. If you are the kind of person who spends your money lavishly at auctions and then donates or long term loans your purchases to a museum - you are my favourite kind of person. Well done you - keep doing your thing. But in the main, as it was at the auction I recently attended, the other bidders with just regular people with a passing interest who wanted to snap up a piece of history for themselves. 'I live in the area so, I thought I'd come down and buy some things since he lived here.' 'I went to the same school as him so - I thought I'd try my hand at collecting.' These are not good reasons to compete with museums for objects.

The problem I think is this. People assume when museums come to buy things we are going to squirrel them away - whisk them back to the big city, away from communities, never do be seen again in our dusty store rooms. In fact, what we are doing is making sure that everyone - including you - will be able to enjoy this piece of history for years to come. Just imagine the pieces bought at auction - held and enjoyed for oh about - 15 minutes. Put on a shelf, trot out at parties. But then forgotten, people get older and pass away, children don't know the significance of their items. Things end up back at auction, or in a local charity shop, or in the bin.

Now you might ask - well how on earth am I supposed to know if a museum wanted this thing? It's not like anyone in the auction room was wearing a big hat saying I WORK FOR A MUSEUM. (Perhaps we should make hats...). Besides, much of what passes through auction houses isn't of interest to museums - it's just nor original enough or significant enough or relevant enough. Here's an easy answer - if you are going to an auction that you think is really cool - why not check with a museum? Your local museum, or just pick a key word 'portrait' 'doctor' 'science' and then google it with the word 'museum' and contact whatever organization comes up informing them of the upcoming auction.

What if more than one museum wants an object? Now this is where I think museums really can be at their best. We do talk amongst ourselves a lot and if we find out we want some similar things, we work it out so we don't bid against each other thereby inflating the price. We discuss our collections development policies, we share our cases, we share our budgets, we make agreements around loans until we come to a mutual agreement. One auction attendee remarked to me 'Ugh, museums - you form little cartels, agreeing who is going to bid on what so the prices stay low.' Um - exactly?! The main thing is it goes into a public collection so everyone can enjoy!

There isn't really a clear solution to many of the issues I raise. Of course people are going to keep buying things at auction, and so they should. Antiques are lovely for your home and for personal interest. In fact - the responsibility here really lies with the auctioneers to recognize museum quality pieces and notify organisations about them - and some do that really well. They ideally also would advise their sellers to consider private treaty sales with museums - so we don't have to compete with the private collectors (who really, let's face it, are always going to have more to spend). They could advise them of the many excellent government schemes which exist to help keep heritage pieces in the public sector. And, to be fair, I do think many auctioneers do this. There are also organisations like Vastari who are helping to link private collectors with museum curators to support public exhibitions - which is a pretty good compromise.

So all I can say is please, if you are at an auction, think really carefully about why you want to purchase that item. Is that really the right home for it? Would you consider donating it to a museum in the future? Take a look around you - does it seem like there are any institutional bidders in the room? (We are easy to spot - usually in groups at the back, pouring over spreadsheets and calculators). Say hello - and think about passing when you see us bidding. All we want is to make sure pieces are accessible to everyone and cared for well into the future! 

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Signed off

I got signed off for work stress from my museum job, and I want to talk about it. To be entirely honest, one of the strongest feelings I’ve been wrestling with throughout this whole process is embarrassment. What will my colleagues think of me? How would my friends react? Could this hurt my projects at work? Could it hurt my chances for jobs in the future? But I was inspired by the Museums Wellness Network (@museum_wellness) to talk about it for anyone else who might be feeling like I do.

I think it’s fair to say that the heritage sector is characterized by over work. We hustle to get our first jobs – slaving away at unpaid internships and balancing uni, part-time jobs, family, friends, and money woes. We work on short term contracts where we sometimes get very little reprieve from job hunting. We compete for low paid jobs. We do more with less. And through it all, we care so deeply about our work and doing the best we can – whether its delivering an exhibition, an event, an education programme, a conservation project, or a visitor experience. I’ve heard through the grapevine stories of colleagues signed off work for stress, but it’s not something I think we talk about openly enough.

Some of the most hard working and resilient people I know work in museums and the arts – people who run small museums with a staff of 2, or put on blockbuster exhibitions in the face of restructures and budget cuts. To be honest, many of us love to be busy! Even working overnight at an install can be fun and totally worth it to share our work with others. There is however a huge different between being busy at work and coping with work stress.

I think it is essential to define what we (or rather what the Health and Safety Executive) mean by work stress. Firstly, let’s start by what it’s not – work stress is not life stress. Life stress includes things like breaking up with someone, losing a loved one, moving, financial troubles, family troubles – you see what I mean. These things are very stressful but they aren't work stress, which means taking time off work may not be the answer. The HSE has identified 6 areas for Management Standards which are meant to tackle specifically work correlated stress: Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role, and Change. Work stress is often caused by: 
  • Being unable to cope with the level of demands placed upon you
  • Being unable to control your work (how much and when you do it)
  • Receiving inadequate support from your management structure or organisation
  • Experiencing negative, toxic, bullying or harassing behaviours in the workplace
  • Being unclear on your role within the organization or having a role which is conflicting or overlapping
  • Dealing with uncertainty and change

Does any of that sound familiar? If so – you might be stressed at work. If you are interested you can try the NHS’s handy workplace stress assessment.

I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of my own work place and the situations which have resulted in my current position. But I can say that I was experiencing many of the challenges listed above for a sustained period and I was doing all the things you should to manage my stress levels. I ate well, I exercised, I slept. I talked to my friends, I talked to my family, I had meetings at work about my concerns. And in the end I was able to manage my work stress for about a year. However, in the end I could no longer sleep because every dream was about a work meeting, an exhibition, a stressful interaction. I was distant from my friends, I was irritable with my family. It was time to change something and get some help.

If like me you didn’t know who to talk to – what the process was or what you could even do when feeling so overwhelmed, the answer is HR and your GP. They are your allies in this process and they know what to do to help. Your line manager as well – depending on the relationship you have with them – or what about the person above them? Is there is someone in a leadership position you think you can talk to?  Seek them out, ask for what you need.

So what have I been doing in my time off? Sounds great right? Actually for someone like me who is so used to be being busy, it’s kind of unbearable. I’ve had to make myself a schedule of productive and positive things to do each day – clean my room, see a friend, go to the gym, see a film, draw, write a blog. And to be honest, I have been sleeping a lot! Or trying to anyway. But my guilt follows me – I feel bad for letting colleagues down and what I’m missing. I am anything but zen like – but trying to look after myself the best I can.

I am worried about returning to work. I’m worried things won’t change, and I’m worried about how people will see me. Will they walk on egg-shells around me? Will I be excluded from meetings? But you know what – anyone who knows me knows I’m as tough as nails. I did a PhD, worked and planned my wedding at the same time. But you can’t control how people think about you or what they might say. What you can do is know how to look after yourself and how to work with your HR team to make sure your workplace is safe and supportive for you.

Work stress is a serious danger to your health and safety and those around you. I hope it is something that maybe we can talk about a bit more in our community. I fear a trend of doing more with less is saddling too many museum people with unrealistic workloads. We need inspiring leaders, realistic goals, clear instructions and robust support systems! I’d be happy to share my experience or if you want to talk about yours – just slide on into our @curiositytweet DMs.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The Battlefield of Exhibition Design

There’s a battle going on behind the scenes of museums and its taking place in project meetings across the world. Collections staff are having to harness their collection management toolkits, arm themselves with knowledge of off-gassing, lux levels and accurate RH and temperature readings. All in the good name of best practice in collections management.

The Times recently published ‘Amanda Levete begs V&A’s curators to see the light and feel the drama’ and it documents an all too familiar battle that collections management face with architects, designers and any creative minds who do not appreciate the duty of care museums need to take to preserve collections for future generations.

The Times article outlines the development of the  ‘occulus’ in the redeveloped courtyard of the V&A – a skylight that would ‘bring light to the historic collections’ (nah mate)  and allow the public to view into the galleries below - if curators weren’t such cowards apparently. For any collections staff it’s an infuriating read that of course sympathises with Levette.

The Occulus @ V&A Photo: Guardian

The article goes on to claim that curators are conventional and terrified of daylight and thus have used black out blinds to block out the scary sunlight since opening.  Levette’s team had calculated that the light would fall down eighteen every hour of every day in every year . Yep - you heard right. Every. Single. Minute of every single day light would be falling onto the collections. And naturally the article takes no counter argument or consideration to collections care into account, - there wouldn’t be an issue with daylight falling onto the collections for 18 hours a day – nothing would happen right?

The curators are far from cowards and should be highly commended for sticking to their point and pull down the blinds on such risks to their collections. Indeed, I'd say its a win for collections management everywhere to see a curator who is so clearly on-side with the conservation staff. 

But this battle is not one that the V&A face alone, having spent much time working on exhibitions I’ve heard all of the ‘innovative’ and ‘striking’ ways we should put our collections at risk for the sake of a creative display. It doesn’t matter how many times you pass on collections display guidelines, barrier lengths and glass thickness details designers and architects will still come back with some crazy way of putting their concept first and the museum collection last – in my time I’ve heard of smoke machines in galleries (nope) the all too common staking objects on top of one another (definitely not) and the enraging ‘does it really need a barrier?’ 

How do we overcome it and continue to ensure collections are put first?

Voice your concern – if something doesn’t make sense on a drawing or a design briefing, ask about it! Often designers will have examples of similar displays, ways of mitigate risk or quite simply some ingenious and sneaky way of displaying objects safely and securely.

Assess the risk – if you really think that the collection is at risk and the designers aren’t budging then do a collections risk assessment, outline the eventualities and how the collection can be affected – this can serve as a good midway point to the argument. If there’s too much of a risk can a facsimile be made?

Stick to your guns – Hold your own and don’t be bullied into stepping down, there is a certain amount of creative thinking that can be discussed in early design plans but if ultimately the object is at risk and documented then don’t let it happen. Speak to colleagues in other museums and see how similar projects but remember as collections carers the objects come first.

Put the challenge over to them - Designers are brought on to projects to bring their experience, expertise and problem solving skills. They also work for the museum, who is the client. Challenge them to come up with innovative solutions that work within the environmental conditions you require. The design process should always be a conversation! 

And  finally! 

 Remember the goal - All parties are working towards the same aim a great display and an increase in access to our wonderful collections!