Friday, April 27, 2012

Canadian Museums Association Conference 2012 - Part 1

Anita in the hotel lobby
It's that time of year again, and over 500 museum professionals from across the country (and a few from around the world) have gathered in Gatineau Qu├ębec for the CMA conference. Having missed the conference last year, it's great to see some old faces and connect with people I usually only converse with by email. I was surprised at seeing so many young professionals and new faces; I think the average age of the delegates has dropped by at least 15 years. There is definitely a shift going on in the field.
There are always a lot of concurrent sessions, so Anita and I spent our breakfast time reviewing the schedule and deciding which sessions were best for us. So here are my notes on the sessions I attended - some things that jumped out at me over the 2 days.

Museums and the Making of Meaning - Robert Sirman, Canada Council
The current state of public support for culture is on everyone's mind. Sirman's talk focused a lot on Marshall McLuhan's teachings and how they can be applied to the work of museums. Information becomes meaning with time and narrative, and so communication systems end up creating social and psychological shifts.
So where do museums fall in the McLuhan time chart of technology? We are conduits for information over and above traditional media. Our traditional gate keeping role is under assault by new technology [I think that's rather harsh - I prefer to look at it as an organic shift in communications] and curating has been democratized. Curation is now an arts practice in and of itself; artists are curators and vice versa. Curators now face management complexities and must carry out the museum's mandate while thinking about the bottom dollar. To define the mandate of a public institution without consulting with and examining the benefit to said public is organizational suicide.

Sirman also talked about the reasons for social change:
1. Technology changes human neuro-patterning. We are a product of this.
2. Breakdowns/Crises create passion and incite action. We should question how serious this breakdown has to be though. There is nothing like imminent destruction to focus one's attention, but it can be rather exhausting to operate in crisis mode all the time.
Museums have enormous potential to generate meanings to society. We need to address a larger social mission, to fight for the survival of the sector and society as a whole. We know from studies that Canadians trust and respect us. We also know that whatever visitor statistics are being reported are no longer reflective of the level of engagement - online engagement is still not being tracked and studied as much as it should be. As we all move to share more information online, we must answer the questions about sensory limitations and how on-site programming can be enhanced. This is urgent. Instead of worrying about a breakdown, it's time to get creative and think about the opportunities to break through.

How to Play with a Full House: appropriate divestment of museum collections
Museums have amassed collections to preserve cultural heritage and now are faced with storage and relevancy issues. Over the past few decades disposal policies have quietly been developed (check out ANSM's online resources for deaccessioning procedures, proposals and worksheets) and according to the ICOM standards, every museum must have policies on both acquisitions and deaccessioning. So long as museums follow these policies and procedures there is little bad press. The controversy is over the notion that once an object enters a museum it will be there forever instead of undergoing study and review which may eventually result in its disposition.

Charlie Hill talked about the National Gallery of Canada's policy and approach, which outlines that the decision to deaccession is based on recommendations from the collections committee through discussions with the director, who then takes it to the board of directors for approval - joint effort with lots of discussion. Due to the amount of resources required to review the collection, instances of disposition are few and usually in response to an outside request.
Every museum needs to be conducting collections analyses to determine strengths and weaknesses. We have a responsibility to remove objects that don't fit our mandate and/or aren't likely to be used. So why do we hold onto these irrelevant items? Hill offered a number of reasons:
1. it is our duty to conserve and so culling the collection often makes museum workers nervous - to many it seems counter-intuitive
2. deaccessioning is a very lengthy process requiring significant resources
3. we don't want to insult our predecessors
4. fear of faulty judgement
5. risk of offending donors
6. collections in their entirety reflect life stages of the museum

However, when we collect we are taking risks and making judgements, so we must do the same with deaccessioning. The curator who doesn't know how to deaccession doesn't know how to collect. New acquisitions seek to counteract past weak decisions. So if items are wasting away in storage for 50 years because they just don't fit the museum's mandate, why not find them homes elsewhere?

Nancy Breugeman from MOA talked about their experience with conducting a large scale deaccessioning project. It took them 5 years to transfer 200 objects, which was a huge drain on resources and didn't solve their space issues. They chose not to sell anything due to the risk of bad publicity. As she spoke about transferring objects to other museums I couldn't help but think about the necessity to prove an object fits the receiving museum's mandate. It would be very irresponsible of an institution to just pass the same issues onto another site. All too often I see a list of objects up for deaccessioning and they are offered on a "first come first serve" basis. Shouldn't the receiving institution have to prove why they should get the object; the same way museums have to rationalize every new acquisition?
Bill Greenlaw delivering the opening address
Keep reading:
CMA Conference Part 2
CMA Conference Part 3
CMA Conference Part 4

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