Storehouses of Knowledge or Warehouses of Risk?

Futureproofing: Disasters?

In light of the recent and absolutely catastrophic cultural and scientific loss both to Brazil and to the world in the fire that consumed the national museum in Rio, there are a lot of questions to be raised about what the future is for museums as conservators and curators of culture to join the pre-existing questions of where museums go next in terms of public engagement and education.

While visiting a museum UX designer friend for some museum lates recently, I got into conversation about this – at that point extremely current – devastating loss to the international community, and what solution we’d propose to the problem of protecting vast collections, accrued in some cases over hundreds of years, from disquieting disasters like this one – especially in a climatically and financially uncertain future.

Over the course of our conversation we toyed with an idea taken from our understanding of data centres: redundancy and remote sites. While every item in a museum’s collection is necessarily unique, perhaps it isn’t always safe to keep multiple similar artifacts in the same location, at risk of wiping out all the examples of [X] in one devastating stroke. Remote storage, increased intermuseum loaning, and split collections could all help mitigate some of the risk faced by centralised collection – as well as providing both scholars and members of the public with greater opportunity to interact with collections geography might otherwise exclude them from.

The V&A is one step ahead on this; selling a warehouse site used to contain a large part of its collection not currently on display, the institution is moving the collection to Stratford to a location to be known as V&A East, where the materials will be on display in an innovative new way: completely surrounded by glass to allow 360-degree viewing.

Futureproofing: Engagement?

Turning away from the problem of how to preserve these storehouses of knowledge for future investigation and education, there’s also the question of engagement: what do we do with museum collections to entice more people to visit and interact with the museum space and museum artefacts, when so much of life and the world is now online?

One way to handle this is what the Museum of London has proposed for its new Smithfield site, to open in 2023: instead of restricting access to the entire collection to standard museum opening hours, with monthly or weekly late opening evenings, to allow visitors to decide for themselves when they want to access the culture and history of their city. The 24-hour-access collection is a step towards broadening London’s goal of becoming a truly 24-hour-city away from solely night-clubs and the odd cafe and restaurant and into more cultural areas. It also promises the possibility of enlarging the reach of “just in the area and popped in” visits.

Another is what three major public institutions have already stepped forward to do: make their entire catalogue available online for casual browsers, with varying degrees of navigability and information. With open access to the museum/gallery catalogue API come apps making the experience of collection interaction easier and more flexible, like ArtString:

ArtString’s raison d’être is to get people talking, either out loud or online, about art and artifacts in museums and galleries. Founder Julia Mariani noticed that many museum visitors feel intimidated by the official style of museum placards and the sense that there’s a secret language or hidden knowledge people need to have in order to really “get” museums. Her aim with the app is to allow people unselfconscious enquiry and enjoyment, interacting with the collection and each other both at home and in the locations themselves (three, so far: the British Museum, the Science Museum, and the National Gallery), curating their own collections and sharing their thoughts and knowledge to build up different focus and more background than can be provided in the limited space of museum placards.

Obviously there are a lot of other questions about the future of museums and interaction: decolonising collections which have the taint of slavery and oppression in their history, for example, or acknowledging the authorship of discoveries and inventions, both misattributed and obscured – as well as using these changes to help invest new generations with an interest in and commitment to the preservation of and engagement with their own and other cultures.

The Uncomfortable Art Tours of historian Alice Procter have enjoyed a certain amount of press coverage since their inception, and rightfully so: broadening our understanding not only of collections but of how collections are built – engaging the public with the history of museums, not just of their contents. As the name suggests, this can often be a difficult as well as illuminating experience.

Futureproofing: Technology?

One question that arises in almost any conversation about the future of an institution is technology. In some conversations the pondering of how to incorporate new technology into museum exhibits seems almost a substitute for thinking creatively about the future of an institution at all – but in some instances, as in the sadly-defunct “natural selection” video game in the Natural History Museum’s Ecology gallery, it can be a raging success.

I spoke to an academic with related expertise about what she sees as the future of technology in museums, in with particular relation to whether new technologies can help students of the arts.

3D printing and VR have applications for entry-level appreciation – children and people who want to take up anatomy drawing or composition studying – but they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for the real artefacts for any kind of study above, say, GCSE. The real life experience is always superior for a reason, and that’s going to become more apparent the further up the academic ladder you go. However, as an early starting point for engaging curiosity and artistic understand they’re the modern equivalent of plaster casts and prints – but accessible in an instant, globally. For cast-strapped art students who want to copy Michelangelo’s David from every angle, VR or a good-quality 3D print maybe a lot easier than travelling to the V&A to view the full-sized cast – or to Florence.

It’s important to be cautious in implementing new technology and not do it for the sake of doing it, but instead really think about what effect these new technologies have on the learning process. For sculpture and other physical arts (such as large-scale paintings where the dimensionality of brush strokes are visible) materials themselves matter and are a huge part of understanding the work of art, its construction, and its context. This isn’t something that can be replicated yet!

Museums and galleries are guardians of quality experience as well as conservators of physical artefacts, and they shouldn’t be tempted to make technology that can’t yet walk try to run a marathon; it’s better to do it well than to do it soon.

Futureproofing: Commercial?

Museum and gallery lates have been an enormous success in getting people who normally have no time for these daytime institutions to come out and reconnect with places and collections which may have previously be consigned to remembrances of childhood. Allowing adults to roam with a glass of wine and ask questions they wouldn’t ask in front of their children or friends’ children has brought millennials in particular back to museums. But more can be done: while talks and explainers with specimens are an additional treat, what really seems to have fired up museum-goers at my recent compare-and-contrast expedition to South Kensington (and a past Halloween visit to the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum) is the chance to create and play.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Deconstructing Masculinities event, two of the most popular areas were the disco – as it is with every late event – and the room in which a craft station had been set up with the aegis of getting visitors to create their own cover for a men’s magazine out of printed samples, using it as a creative springboard to talk about what they want from masculinity. As these things often do, by the time I’d arrived this had turned into a large number of excited adults sitting on the floor with gluesticks and scissors, all competing to see who could construct the most aesthetically offensive withering satire on media representations of masculinity, and there were some real corkers in there.

Which, in tandem with the notion of digitised collections – both 3D and photographic – and the foregrounding of the personal experience, leads to the question of how much of a museum’s treasure trove can be effectively rented out? While museum spaces – vast, aesthetically unique, immediately recognisible – are already favoured locations for filming TV and music videos, for hosting corporate, media, and governmental events, there are other realms in which museums can monetise their appeal without charging visitors and thus closing the door on the eager minds of tomorrow.

To take an example that draws all of these threads together:

A fully-digitised collection of 3D artefacts or specimens, available as online licensed printer files or in-store printables (the way that it’s already possible in many gallery shops, such as the National Gallery, to have a printed on-demand image from the gallery’s collection on any size of poster or card, while you wait), allows for tactile exploration of museum and gallery objects and a greater understanding of them. For schools, purchasing a schools license bundle allows children to get to grips with both the museum collection and their own interpretation of creating – learning how to replicate a particular scan in a classroom CAD package for printing or to use pre-existing arfefacts as a springboard for their own creativity and understanding. In-house, a painting station allowing children and adults alike to customise their own printables produces a new level of creative interaction and play, and gives the opportunity for further education about the artfacts chosen and their appearance in the collection. Commericalising this process with the sale of limited licenses or individual printables is non-intrusive, and still centres the educational and playful experience.

Likewise, 2017’s ingenious personalisation of museum experiences with the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England Wales and the associated LGBTQ history tours of museums, galleries, and palaces has spawned many exciting variations, both official and unofficial. These have a wealth of functions: they allow for new ways of seeing a collection which involve no physical alteration to the collection itself, they impart more information to visitors than can be fitted onto specimen placards, and they help to personalise the experience of the collection to each visitor’s interests. With the addition of apps like ArtString into this mix, the experience of personalised museum tours becomes even more personal – and breaks the boundaries of the physical museum space altogether, allowing visitors to entice friends and family from around the world to experience collections from every perspective.

Futureproofing: Connectivity

Apps like ArtString are only made possible with the generous provision of full online collections. What stands out for me about ArtString is that it reaches across individual museums and galleries, assisting visitors in a “joined-up” way of looking at history and the present, instead of partitioning things off along arbitrary lines. For example, it’s long been argued that the division of sciences into “physics, chemistry, biology” is at heart misleading – all of these are ways of describing the reality we live in, but at different levels of function and complexity. They have to be taken as a whole to truly understand the universe!

Similarly, cross-museum cooperation allows for greater synthesis of ideas in visitors and conservators. Historical perspectives that join up the scientific progress of an era with its art and natural history, its changing thought patterns and social progress, allow for a broader understanding of the world, of each individual culture, and of scientific advancements in their proper contexts.

What ArtString shows is that great connectivity between institutions of art, science, history, natural history and culture doesn’t purely have to be a matter of reciprocal email campaigns and object loans for exhibitions or study. Simply linking together relevant concepts in the digital realm can induce visitors to pay more attention both to the world they live in, and to which institutions they can learn about this in!

For a practical example:

I went to the National Gallery after an appointment. In the Sainsbury Wing, there is a painting of Saint Sebastian or ten; the specific painting I mean is by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano in Room 57. Looking at this painting, you might wonder why the loincloth the saint is wearing is a pale shade of pink, and why he appears to have no blood coming from his arrow wounds.

Now I know, because of a placard on a painting that I saw at the V&A Museum some years before, that a lot of medieval paintings have “white” cloth because the cloth was originally painted red using a paint made from the plant Madder, which because of its organic base and short wavelength, is particularly susceptible to fading in natural light.

also know, because I watched (several) BBC 4 series in the intervening period, that a lot of paints during the Renaissance underwent a change in composition of manufacture which continued all the way through the Victorian period (when dangerous green dyes made of arsenic manufactured from the mining waste – from the mine I grew up on top of, fact fans! – were gradually replaced with safer new alternatives), and onward into the mid-twentieth century as synthetic pinks and purples were discovered. This information in this paragraph has been itself synthesised from three separate BBC documentaries (one about colour, one about dangers in the Victorian home, and one about the history of chemical discoveries), and the delightful William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.

Mineral pigments, I learnt from one of those documentaries, are much more long-lasting, like the blue used in many of the Marian robes in the medieval paintings in the Sainsbury Wing: this blue is derived from Lapis Lazuli – available to view in its natural state in the Natural History Museum’s geology and mineralogy galleries, or in carved and jewellery form in the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum.

The process of colour creation continues to this day. In fact, there has been a recent and well-publicised art world spat about this, between hipster pigment creator Stuart Semple and celebrated British artist Anish Kapoor, whose arresting, often red-heavy work has been displayed and is still displayed at both the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern.

In this story of colour, answering a simple question about a bloodless St Sebastian painting in Room 57, I’ve taken you through knowledge collected by chance viewings of documentaries, and through the V&A Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum (where else would you go to learn about the chemical processes in making dyes and pigments?), the William Morris Gallery, the British Museums, and the Tates. I’ve taken you on a whirlwind tour of a good six hundred years of pigment history moving forwards, and could just as easily take you back through time to talk about the evolution of Madder – with a visit to Kew Gardens – or the historic uses of Lapus Lazuli and Cadmium, and how trade in mineral pigments helped develop connectivity in the ancient and modern world.

Not all those institutions have their full collections online yet, but with time and investment it could be extremely easy to give highly-focused and well-connected tours like this which tie together past and present and potential future, art and science and history and the natural world, and most importantly use a single question as the starting point for a whole galaxy of answers.


Finding a pathway that protects collections and engages future visitors, making the most of the museum as a place of learning without engendering too many extraneous costs won’t be an easy task. Compromises will be need to be made, but if they’re approached as collaborations with enthusiastic outsiders rather than failure to implement in-house there’s potential for serious innovation, at least so far as getting new faces into museum spaces go. As for getting academics to engage with collections – well, sometimes the old ways are still the best.

(originally posted on my personal blog)

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