AHOTW Symposium - Alec Coles - Making it Real

Video | Updated 11 months ago

Making it real: the changing nature of collections


Alec Coles: I’ d like to begin obviously by acknowledging that we meet on Whadjuk Noongar land, and the Whadjuk people are the traditional custodians of this land. I pay my respect to their elders past and present, in the knowledge that where we meet and where we will build the new museum was in deep history a wetland of great significance to Whadjuk people. Twenty minutes is not long to speak on what I consider to be one of the most fundamental questions facing museums today: what and how we should collect — and more importantly why. This engraving is the earliest pictorial record of a natural history cabinet and probably of a museum. It will be familiar to many ofyou. It’ s an engraving of Ferrante Imperato’ s Dell’ Historia Naturalein Naples in 1599. Now that’ s what I call a museum. It’ s a collection of, well, just about anything that might have been living at some point but certainly wasn’ t by the time it made its way into the museum. It’ s tempting to think that we’ ve moved on from this rather eclectic approach but the beautiful and extremely successful re-modelling of Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow in Scotland, which I may say is one of the most visited museums in the UK outside London, took almost exactly the same approach, a cacophony of all kinds of things.

Particularly the Spitfire swooping over the giraffe there, I’ m not sure. People love it. At the risk of boring my colleagues who’ ve seen this many times before, the little reminder of where we’ ve come to in terms of developing the new museum here. This is the way we were. This was the mammal gallery about 100 years ago and that was the mammal gallery about two weeks ago, and if you take the colour out of it, it doesn’ t look terribly different. I should say, we have moved on there because it’ s just been pulled out in preparation for the new museum, literally last week. But it illustrates a really important point, it’ s one that’ s known to anybody in business, that if you keep doing the same thing don’ t expect to get a different answer. I think the same thing is with collecting: if you keep collecting the same things don’ t expect that you’ re going to change the way that you approach your display. Of course one of the greatest challenges facing us is how to develop a credible digital strategy. There’ s a touching naïve view amongst some that this is the answer to everything. It is not. It provides an answer to some things but also many more questions.

I remember distinctly in the early days of discussion with treasury –and I do know this is being filmed, by the way – the comments from the treasury saying, well why would you need a museum cause everything’ s digital now? So it’ s quite good to be closing the museum for development withsome of the most extraordinary objects in the world. Now according to ICOM, the International Council of Museums, a museum is “a non-profit permanent institution in the service of society, and its development open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes ofeducation, study and enjoyment.” Am I bothered? Not really but I would like to just dissect that in one way, in terms of how the WA museum matches up, but also hopefully how it goes beyond that. Is it non-profit? Well no problem there, I can guarantee we’ re not profit. [audience laughter] Alec Coles: Are we a permanent institution? Let’ s hope so. In the service of society and development? Can’ t argue with that. Open to the public? Of course. Well that’ s good. Acquires, conserves, absolutely. So we’ re five down. Tangible and intangible heritage? Just don’ t get me started on that one because I actually have a particular and personal problem with the term ‘ intangible heritage’ , which I might talk about in a few moments. Humanity and its environment?

That’ s a bit of an anthropomorphic view of the world, I feel, and something that we might want to take into account. And yes, it does education, study and enjoyment but it should do so much more as well. At the risk of sounding now self-righteous, the WA museum is less concerned with what a museum is than what it does. I remember some years ago when I worked in the UK we had a national program of funding for regional museums called Renaissance in the Regions. Its strap-line was, ‘ Museums for Changing Lives’ and that is what I believe museums should do. It should also drive our collecting imperatives. With this in mind we developed a mission statement which I think describes exactly what we should do, inspire people to explore and share their identity, culture, environment and sense of place, and contribute to the diversity and creativity of our world. It’ s not a sanctimonious and vanilla statement but an articulation of our values and an essential commitment to change across the whole organisation. Not because it was broken or dysfunctional but because not enough people understood what it was for or what it could do. And as James has said, we are building a new museum right here right now. It’ s been a long time coming and even now we cannot show you a picture of what it will look like. Give me four months and we might be able to but for now this nebulous image of flensed marine mammals floating through the ether as visitors in suits dice with death on unprotected balconies is, I’ m afraid, the best that I can offer you. [audience laughter] Alec Coles: Luckily we’ ve already completed two phases of this 430 milliondollar project — refurbishment of the heritage buildings here, the exteriors, but also the very exciting completion of new stores and laboratories at our collection research centre in Welshpool.

My curators are absolutely over the moon, people get excited about different things and they love roller-racking like this compactus. So this latter achievement is critical to the success, the development of the museum because it is home to the vast majority of the 8.5 million items in the WA museum’ s collections that span many disciplines, cultures and communities and the natural sciences. A collection of real things is surely what defines a museum, or it should be. Certainly for the new project one of our touchstones has been authenticity but that authenticity does not necessarily mean physical things, it can mean many other things as well. It’ s worth remembering that the breadth of collections and activity of the WA museum is that those real things are not all the result of human activity. Those compactus shelving units and that store is for just a small proportion of our zoological collections that at least in number dwarf the numbers of our culture and community collections, but they’ re extremely important helping us understand and manage, and indeed conserve, our environment. These biological collections have many contemporary uses and many, I suspect, that we still do not know of. They provide environmental data, cultural data, and in the case of the western rock lobster here a reference point for those who think they may have been sold something less than authentic, we get a lot of queries around that.

The potential for biological material that we retain is limitless. Our molecular laboratory is currently used for identifying organisms and sorting out evolutionary relationships, but who knows in the future whether or not under appropriate ethical conditions we will be able to recreate extinct species like the Tasmanian Tiger. And the power of objects is beyond question. Extreme examples in our collection include the Second World War prison camp suit in which a Polish migrant arrived here in Western Australia, these the only clothes and possessions that he had at the time. And if we’ re talking about the power of objects — we have to get Neil MacGregor in somewhere — this is my favourite ever photograph of museum cultural diplomacy. Neil MacGregor in Tehran showing the Cyrus Cylinder from the British Museum’ s collections to the then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad was not the most sympathetic person to western causes, it has to be said, and when the British Museum lent this object it created a dialogue that could never have been created by any other aspect of the British government at that time, and I think, Mat, in terms of your political dimensions that was an extreme one. One of the key questions of course is how to collect and indeed present Aboriginal cultural materials and the first answer to that, of course, is working closely with Aboriginal people. And this is one of those clear cases where it’ s not always appropriate to collect the actual material. This by the way of course is some of the rock art on the Burrup Peninsula, something that with only a touch of hyperbole I describe as a kind of human chronicle over just about geological time, it is one of the most extraordinary places in the world. So much Aboriginal culture is based upon oral tradition, and for that reason we collect stories, testimonies and memories. These are equally authentic to the physical objects and this is where I have that argument with the prejudicial term ‘ intangible cultural heritage’ . ‘ Intangible is a western term that really reveals our own lack of understanding of those cultural paradigms. How can you imagine something more tangible to an Aboriginalperson than the Dreaming story that might define their very being? I have to say, ‘ intangible cultural heritage’ is a term I’ m trying to dispense with at every turn.

The next stage beyond that is creating authentic contemporary and non-physical Aboriginal cultural expression and this is why we work here at the WA museum so closely with Aboriginal performance company Yirra Yaakin. This year we’ ll be commissioning a new work by Yirra Yaakin about the love and understanding of country, that will actually tour regional WA. And in this sense what could be more relevant than our ‘ Object 101’ and the relationship between traditional knowledge and contemporary western science? This leads into a more general consideration of contemporary collecting. How do we know what we should collect today? What will be important to help future generations understand us? Samdok was an initiative that began in Sweden in 1973. Its purpose was, and I quote, “preservation of an optimal stock of objects for the future”, and, “furnishing objects with the necessary peripheral information”— I think we call that ‘ metadata’ today, don’ t we? In 1973 the organisation was made up of five national and regional museums which would rotate responsibility for collecting each year. Researchers at each institution would choose a family that they felt was representative of an area and carefully document their living spaces with photographs, usually focusing on one room, and after in-situ documentation the researchers would attempt to acquire as many of the objects from that room as the family was willing to donate –that kind of gives you an interesting thought, it’ s kind of like the bailiffs coming in isn’ t it really — and all histories were recorded. It’ s a really interesting project, it actually wrapped up in 2011 but it was certainly the museum sector followed it through with great interest because we all struggled with this idea: what do we collect today? But it also demonstrates another point that’ s come up several times today, this issue of objectivity in museums. There is no such thing as objectivity; someone is always making a choice, someone is always deciding what to collect, what to display, how to interpret it, so we shouldn’ t fool ourselves on that one. I suppose the other thing that we also — and that little cartoon that came from one of the Samdok publications — is how we then communicate that idea that it is important to collect today, because we still obviously get people coming to museums saying, “well why are you collecting that? I used to have one of those.”

Well, that’ s why we collected it, actually. I must admit, the other issue of Samdok is, if you were one of those families being tracked would it affect the way you lived your life? Would you actually buy healthier food than you might otherwise have bought? Would you have ordered those kind of marital aids on the internet that you were saving up for if you knew that somebody was going to document it and put it in a museum in perpetuity? I suspect not. So where I was actually going with this, there’ s a slide missing out of here but was actually showing the museum in Western Park in Sheffield in Yorkshire England where there’ s a gallery which is called ‘ Your Gallery’ , and that’ s where you create your own memories, your own messages. And I also had — which is very relevant to the Perth International Arts Festival this year — something called ‘ Street Skate Style’ which was my favourite ever project that I did in Newcastle upon Tyne which was working with skaters, with skateboards, in Newcastle, to create a collection based around their lives, their equipment, their costume, to form a permanent record of that. There’ s another dimension to this as well, the idea of museums creating collections almost, I suppose, by subterfuge. These are two installations, one in Kelvingrove on the left and one in Bristol on the right, where art interventions—they weren’ t actually technically artistic interventions — but they were interventions to really create a sense and a space that epitomised the place. So for instance Bristol with the balloons, lots of people go hot air ballooning in Bristol and it’ s a very common sight on the skyline.

Glasgow, those faces are very famous hanging faces to create expressions of all the different people of Glasgow. But when those museums change their displays are they going to keep those as collections? And in a sense does that mean the museum has intervened unfairly? I don’ t know. I also found this blog which I thought captured a particularly Australian element, and this was where things were being washed up on Chili Beach in Queensland. The blog from Dr Joe Wills here says, could some of the thongs collected during the annual clean-up be considered significant and included in contemporary collections and stories about tourism, environmental management, and community on Eastern Cape York Peninsula? Now there is —we’ re back onto Doctor Who for some reason—one of the ways that we can actually engage with collectors or collections is to work with personal collections and personal collectors, but there are of course some dangers in this. You sometimes might end up working with someone like Rob Hull who has 1,202 Daleks, apparently. Apparently he’ s not even interested in Doctor Who. Nick Vermeulen of the Netherlands has 6,290 air sick bags from 1,191 different airlines, that must be a lot of air miles. Bring it back to home, I’ m not particularly sure I would want to give space to Australian Graham Barker who’ s been collecting his own belly fluff since 1984, and apparently has the largest collection in the world surprisingly enough, but there you go.

I know what you’ re thinking, they’ re all mad and they’ re all men... [audience laughter] Alec Coles: ... but meet Nancy Hoffman from Peaks Island Maine who owns the largest umbrella cover collection in the world, and if you visit the museum she will greet you by playing her official song on her accordion, so watch out for that one. The V&A ran a very interesting project called ‘ Every Object Tells a Story’ some years ago, which involved dispatching a London taxi with a video booth installed to all corners of the United Kingdom. People went along and brought along an object of particular importance to them and made a video digital record of that. That again was a collection in perpetuity, the museum didn’ t acquire the objects but it actually acquired the stories around them. That was my object by the way. We talk a lot about emotions. We’ re also running out of time and I’ m going to get a ding on the glass in any minute, but this was something that was brought when we did a 70th anniversary of thesinking of HMAS Sydney seminar in Geraldton. This is an absolutely extraordinary object but I’ m not going to tell you about it, you have to ask me about it afterwards cause otherwise I’ m going to lose my time. Our own scaled down version of capturing digital stories —somewhere, no doubt in a minute a slide will come up of the Library of Congress when it announced that it was going to take a big stride towards preserving the US’ s increasingly digital heritage by acquiring Twitter’ s entire archive of tweets. That was in 2010 they said they were going to do that. More than five years later the project is in limbo and the library is still grappling with how to manage an archive that amounts to something like half amillion tweets. Our own scaled down version of that is called ‘ WA Faces’ . It involves people making and providing a portrait of themselves and their opinions of what makes WA. This is a live project, we’ ve done a lot of face to face work on this, but it’ s also online and people can actually make their own video online, and we’ ve now I think got about 3,000 of these, which will all be part of the story of the new museum.

There can be few more provocations than the display of this vessel, the refugee and asylum seekers vessel, that arrived in Geraldton in 2013, but that is exactly what we want to do in the new museum that will be built here. It will provide an opportunity to build understanding of the plight of refugees, of the political hysteria around this issue, an Australian psyche at the time that I found particularly spiteful. But it will also provoke, to say the least, energetic debate about the fate and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia. And this isn’ t alien to museums, this is a display in Bristol that opened a few years ago, When does Violence become a Justifiable Course of Action?We were looking at the history of the nuclear disarmament movement in the UK. This is Puke Ariki in New Plymouth in New Zealand where they held this exhibition called What If? where people again contributed their own views about New Plymouth which very much actually affected the way that New Plymouth developed thereafter. This I think is quite brilliant, appearing here as part of The Fringe. This is called, as it says there, A Mile in My Shoes, and it’ s something run by the Empathy Museum out of the UK where visitors are invited to walk a mile in somebody else’ s shoes. That person might be anything from—it says here—a steelworker or a sex worker, even, and to really uncover the stories, the different aspects of life, loss, grief, hope that those people have, and I think that experiential and emotional experience is really interesting, if you get a chance to check that out please do. So I had a little checklist at the end of how the nature of collecting, I think, is changing. We’ re collecting more commonplace. We previously collected the rare and the wonderful, we’ re now trying to collect the representative. In the biological sciences it’ s more molecular, we don’ t actually need to collect as much material now because that information is tied up in molecular data. More digital, more personal — more personal objects and, as I say, more representative, maybe. More ephemeral and more — bit of a typo there — opinion-driven. It’ s less expensive. One of the issues that really affects museums, or public museums, today is their inability to cope and actually compete in markets with private collectors.

It’ s less curated and in a way maybe that could be a good thing. It means that it’ s more, I guess, what people think from their heart. It’ s less physical, there’ s more of those non-physical — that I won’ t call intangible — cultural items. It’ s less fact-driven and there’ s definitely less bling. One of the issues that we have to cope with, and that illustrated very much by that library example, is it’ s less manageable. We’ ve got so much data that we can collect these days we really have to be very focused about the way we go about it. And so I guess the post-script of that is, what people or indeed things will think of us in the future, because that’ s the real challenge of collecting for us. We might think of how we want to be seen today but we have no idea what future generations will think from the museum collections of today. Thank you very much. [audience applause]

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