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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 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! 

Monday 14 May 2018

On PhDs and museum jobs

Recently I've seen a number of conferences and symposiums aimed at PhD students exploring 'alternative careers' outside academia. With recent strikes and the continuing precariousness of short term and zero hour teaching contracts, pursuing a traditional academic career has become unattractive to many recent postgraduates. 'I'm planning to work as a museum curator' one such student said to me recently. Indeed, museum work and curatorial jobs are often highlighted as a logical alternate career. Personally, I think this is an incredibly irresponsible and misguided message to give PhD students and here's why. 

First off, let me just say that I think PhDs are great. I've got one, and I love it. PhDs have so many transferrable skills that can lend them to a variety of sectors - the ability to work methodically, to manage projects, to be self-guided in work, to write convincingly, to research thoroughly, the speak publicly and many many more great attributes. However, a PhD does not a museum curator make. Gone are the days in which curators were simple very specialist in a particular field, sitting in offices, researching all day long and producing niche but well research books. Just as this kind of isolation no longer flies in academia, it's definitely not the case in museums.

To work in a museum is arguably a vocation - it is a career typified by a very specific set of specialist skills. Whether you come at it from an MA in museum studies or from practical experience, museum workers need to be skilled in fields as wide as collections management, registry, documentation, Spectrum standards, hazards, accreditation, object handling, interpretation planning, public programming and engagement, text writing, legal frameworks and many many many more things. Museum professionals take years to build up their specialist skills which enable them to get jobs in a highly competitive field.

When this person at a recent exhibition opening said, 'I'm planning to be a museum curator', I naturally replied 'Oh have you worked in a museum before?'. 'Oh no', they informed me 'but I've always loved them.' Yes, museums are amazing and to work in them is amazing. We are all here because we love museums. But personally, I think the idea that one can just slide into museums is a bit insulting to an entire field of people who have spent years working their ass off to gain the experience needed. This is particularly true when it comes to curatorial work - which is often particularly coveted by those inside and outside the field. These days, curators need not only research skills but collections management experience to boot, not to mention a huge dose of public engagement prowess. 

I also feel like I have to mention in case this might not be apparent to students in the academy, museum work is terribly paid. Like, really. You'll see starting salaries in London museums as low as £16k per year (although we all agree that's terrible). If you are lucky, you might join the sector on £23k. For a full blown specialist curator, you are looking at £30k. Many postdocs get paid £40k to start, and senior lecturers can expect to earn between £45-55k. Plus that short term contract thing - yeah we have that too. It's a highly competitive and notoriously underpaid sector so, let's not get too romantic about the museum field. 

Now this isn't to say there isn't a place in museums for PhDs. For example, many institutions hire specific research-based roles which rely on drawing in new hires from the academy. The Science Museum recently appointed posts aimed at incorporating academic research into their new medicine galleries, and the National Army Museum is looking for a Head of Collections Research with academic chops. Research roles a great initial way for PhDs to join the museum community and start to build the skills they will need to one day become curators. Not forgetting of course that there is so so much more to museum work than just the curator! From learning teams to public programming, fundraising, marketing, social media and more - you'd be surprised how you can develop in the field. 

I'd also mention that museums LOVE to work collaboratively with academics. It is definitely possible that you can get some great experience of exhibitions through collaborative projects based at universities. If you do get to work on something like this, take all the opportunities you can to learn from your museum colleagues. 

My aim here isn't to put a downer on anyone's ambitions. I absolutely love working in museums and want to support others into the field. However, I think its important to be realistic about what museums can offer in terms of salaries and opportunity. Getting a museum job is just as competitive as academic work, so don't expect is to be an easy alternative to lecturing. And as for curatorial work, its some of the most highly sought after - so be sure to think big about the different career paths museums can offer you.

Personally, I am a museum curator with a PhD. But I'm not a curator because I have a PhD. In fact, I was hired for the job on the basis of my museum experience and in particular my years of work managing collections and supporting researchers. That I had a PhD in a relevant subject was something that was icing on the cake and maaaaybe got me over the line. But the core of what a museum worker needs is practical experience, demonstrable achievements and hard work. 

Practical experience of working in a heritage environment will be 100% necessary to getting into the field. So, PhD or not, you, like the rest of us, will need to get onto some voluntary work, a graduate scheme, a paid internship, or some other entry level role. Basically, if you've never worked in heritage before, it's time to get some experience. And if you are serious about museums, it will be well worth it for the job you want! We've even made a handy getting into museums guide to get you started. 

Wednesday 2 May 2018

30 before 30: Museum Rites of Passage

How is it Spring already? When we first thought about this article the year was looking fresh and we were starting the countdown to our 30th birthdays - now they are fast approaching! Age is only a number isn't it? But this has given us an opportunity to reflect on our time so far and how we have developed into mid-career professionals. Sure, we're pretty peeved that we've not made it onto the Forbes 30 before 30 list but has anyone in the museum world?! Where is our museums 30 under 30 list - looking at you Museums Association!

While 30 before 30 lists may feature of our #careergoals Pinterest boards they certainly give unrealistic expectations to what you can achieve, especially in an industry where it takes years of studying, volunteering, bouncing around positions to get a single toe on the ladder. So, the typical Ministry fashion we thought we'd mix it up a bit and think about the 30 rites of passage you may experience as you move from early career professional to mid-career professional. 

  1.  Get a paid museum job! It’s been a hard slog and you’ve spent way more hours volunteering with way too much responsibility but you’ve made it! 
  2. Apply for a new job a month into your contract – with short term contracts we’ve all spent time at work ‘in the stores’ applying for a job as soon as you’ve got one.
  3. Break an object (because we've all been there)
  4. Sign up for Museums Showoff 
  5. Delete a record on the Collections Management System - by accident of course.
  6. Have a strop for not being invited to an exhibition opening 
  7.  Finally get invited to an opening 
  8. Get so drunk at an opening on the excitement of free booze and canapes that you puked in the toilets - hey at least its not on an object!
  9. Pull a sickie for a hangover (after the opening)
  10. Pull an all-nighter on an install (or several in a row)
  11. Wake up in the middle of the night and panic about the location of an object or status of a loan.
  12. Go to a museum late and dance the night away 
  13. Rip your jeans at work - right. across. the bum.  
  14. Play pallet truck races in the stores (a safe distance from the objects, obvs). 
  15.  Eat at the nearest dirty café to the museum
  16. Schmooze your way into a free coffee in the museum cafe
  17. Speak to the director of your favourite museum, have a fan girl panic, then creepily add them on LinkedIn. 
  18. Have your photo taken for press and marketing 
  19.  Stalk a celebrity in the museum - and know how to act around them
  20.  Be called a curator (even if you’re not) correct them, explain, give up, let someone call you a curator. Conservator also counts. 
  21. Explain to your family that you won't be going on antiques roadshow. Also why you won't be buying a house any time soon. 
  22. Explain that you're not able to give valuations for their ‘priceless’ vase/necklace/hunk of junk that’s been in the garden shed for ten years. 
  23. Go on a courier trip! 
  24. Realise that overseas courier trips are actually a bit lonely and there is a lot of waiting around. 
  25. Fall out of love with museums, fall back in love with museums. In, out, shake it all about - this one never goes away. 
  26. Spend every Thursday lunchtime refreshing the Leicester museum job page. 
  27. Spend every weekday working in your museum, then every weekday evening at other institutions at events and openings. 
  28. Visit an exhibition and spend most of your time checking out the art hanging, checking the distance between the object and the barrier and tutting if it’s against your own museum policy. 
  29. Check out a range of museum stores and have storagegasms at their plan presses, rolling racking, shelving, the things we would do with good storage facilities! 

  30. Make friends and as you move on, get insider info from museum across London and the country!

This is not an exhaustive list and nor is necessarily something to aspire to but most of these points have been part of our journeys.  We'd love to hear more about how your museum career looked in your 20s! Tweet us @curiositytweet using #30before30. And if you are writing for the MA and want to publish a UK museums 30 under 30, just make sure to publish it in the next few weeks, ok?!