In the wake of this week’s announcements that the Globe Theatre and the Royal Albert Hall may have to close, Sir Nicholas Kenyon (Managing Director of the Barbican Centre and former director of the BBC Proms) stated on BBC Radio 4 this morning that the survival of the arts can no longer be a side issue. He believes - and rightly so - that different approaches to recovery will be needed for the different sectors of the arts. Social distancing is being relaxed to enable sport to resume, so why, when more people go to the theatre than attend a premier league football match, is there such disparity in funding and political support? If more government support is not forthcoming, so much of our culture and heritage will be lost.
Julia Gillard, the first woman to serve as Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister (2010-13) of Australia, described her appointment as the new chair of the Wellcome Trust as “a dream come true”, adding that “I will relish supporting and speaking up for scientific research into key health challenges. I look forward to working with all those in the Wellcome family, including the Board, the staff who are led by the remarkable Jeremy Farrar, the research community and all those focused on the health of humanity.”
Gillard was a prominent figure in Australia’s economic recovery from the 2008 financial crash and also implemented significant education and healthcare reforms. Since leaving office in Australia, she has taken on roles as chair of both the Global Partnership for Education and mental health awareness body Beyond Blue. Her appointment is to be welcomed. She will replace another inspiring woman, Eliza Manningham-Buller, former Director General of MI5, the outgoing chair in April 2021.
This was the stark headline of an article in The Times yesterday (1 May) by its arts correspondent, Richard Morrison. Without the influx of foreign visitors the national museums will suffer. University museums will face funding losses as international students fail to enrol. Many museums and galleries are facing the possibility of permanent closure because of the Coronavirus pandemic and not just the smaller ones: the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth and the Postal Museum in London have already signalled their imminent insolvency. Moreover, the culture secretary seems to be more interested in getting top-level football played again rather than opening any aspect of the arts. As Morrison states, if it’s deemed acceptable for footballers to stand side-by-side in a defensive wall, why shouldn’t dancers be allowed to perform? If we’re allowed to visit supermarkets, why can’t social distancing be applied to our cultural assets? Museums and galleries will need to be creative in what they offer and how they make it available to us. So we must all do our bit to support our cultural heritage once re-opening starts. After all, with the drop in foreign visitors, social distancing will be easier to impose and we’ll be able to enjoy some of our best loved sites without huge crowds. But, above all, we need to lobby government to provide financial support for the hard-pressed smaller museums and galleries that simply may not survive this crisis otherwise.
Restaurant menus are “curated”, fashion shows are “curated”, playlists are “curated”. So, when everything is “curated,” what does the word even mean? The term has become a fashionable buzzword, but its ubiquity has left it almost devoid of meaning. It is used to suggest reassurance, implying that the thing curated is meaningful yet, mostly, its use in these contexts is meaningless. Even worse, is use of the phrase “carefully curated”, which is tautological.
The origins of “curate” lie in the Latin word “curare”, meaning “to take care of”, which is what traditional users of the term, in museums and galleries, have done for a very long time. But, the idea of curators as creative agents in their own right is new, signified by the move from vocational work to independent and critical engagement and reflected in the move in recent years by museums to credit the curators of their exhibitions. According to Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of Serpentine Galleries in London “The current vogue for the idea of curating comes from the proliferation and reproduction of ideas, processed information and images in the digital age [and that] this contemporary resonance risks producing a kind of bubble where the word in itself loses meaning.”
For me this has parallels with the archive sector and the hijacking of the terms “archivist” and “archiving”, initially by IT, but now used in a wider context to simply mean collection or storage, and not just of documents, whereas the classic definition is of records selected for permanent preservation for their historical and informational value. With the dilution in meaning and value of this professional terminology, what then can those working in the arts and heritage sector use to reflect their skills and training?
Inspired by an article - “These days, everyone’s a curator” - in The New York Times, 3 March 2020.
Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian at the University of Oxford, has made an impassioned plea to organisations to implement open policies and practices to preserve our digital memory. He argues that the preservation of digital information is a cornerstone of good policy and that organisations also need leadership, resources and collaboration in order to succeed. Many solutions are being developed though open communities, including software, standards and tools, such as JHOVE for validation and format identification. We all need to take action if we want to avoid losing our collective social memory and not fall into a “digital Dark Age” (see also post, "An Information Black Hole?", 14 February 2015).
Wentworth Woodhouse is an amazing Grade 1 listed country house in South Yorkshire. It has the longest frontage of any building in Britain and, reputedly, has 365 rooms. For years this incredible house was in danger of collapse due to coal mining that had weakened its foundations until, in 2016, the then Chancellor, Philip Hammond, made a grant of £7.6 million for restoration work. Although an estimated £42 million will be needed overall, Wentworth Woodhouse goes from strength to strength. The Preservation Trust has recently reported that phase one of the emergency works programme is almost at an end with like for like replacement of roof slates on the south-east wing, known as Bedlam, the Riding School and the Chapel. The chapel's ceiling has also been restored its the chandelier, that was discovered stored away in a dusty box, has lovingly restored. Work on phase two, to re-slate the east front State Rooms, is already running ahead of schedule.
The Camellia House, which is home to some of the oldest and rarest camellias in the Western world, is still roofless and in dire need of restoration, but has received a National Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £1.5 million to transform it into a daytime café and evening events venue. The grant will help to develop proposals for the 18th century menagerie, the Riding School and the southern range of the Stables. Meanwhile, the first donation to the newly-launched Wentworth Woodhouse Wishlist was by local company Spear and Jackson who donated their top-notch trowels, spades, forks and garden loppers to help the site’s volunteers.
A rotting 19th century oak sculpture of biblical hero Samson that once served as a nightclub ‘doorman’ in Norwich has been restored and is now on display at the city’s museum. Carved columns of Samson and Hercules were commissioned by the mayor of Norwich in 1657 to guard the entrance to his home. From the 1930s to 2003, the building functioned as a dance hall and nightclub. The decaying Hercules was replaced in the late 19th century, but Samson remained in situ until his right arm fell off in 1992, sparking a local campaign for the preservation of both figures. Fibreglass replicas took their place outside the building in the unusually named Norwich street, Tombland, and Norfolk Museums began a programme of painstaking restoration.
Plowden & Smith were commissioned to preserve and restore Samson, a process that took many years as he was covered in about 60 layers of poisonous white lead paint and had fungus growing on him. Water had caused such extensive rot that his interior was like a sponge, requiring weeks of consolidation. The restored Samson was unveiled at the Museum of Norwich in April after a crowd-funding campaign raised £15,000 for a bespoke, environmentally-controlled display case.
I was fascinated to read an article in The Times on 7 May that 3-D scanning is being used to produce precise reproductions of cultural objects. Facsimile paintings can be created using the same pigments and canvas as the originals, allowing us to see vivid, unfaded, colours, thus creating the experience intended by the artist and not as we view many artworks today, that have suffered deterioration though age and environment and that have to viewed through glass, in low light, or from some distance away. It also means that artworks can be seen in their original settings. Such a facsimile of Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana has been created for the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, the original commissioner of the work, whilst the original sits in The Louvre in Paris.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has discovered an ancient Egyptian scroll hidden inside a vessel containing a mummified ibis. The rolled-up papyrus, wrapped in two layers of linen, was found when conservators were examining their animal mummies before moving them to a new storage depot. The crucial question was whether the papyrus was inserted in the clay vessel in antiquity or in modern times, when it was in the Miramar collection, owned by Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, who acquired the object in Egypt in the mid-19th century. After his execution in 1867, Maximilian’s collection passed to his Habsburg brother, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and in 1883 it entered the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Samples of the mummy’s linen covering and the two pieces of fabric used to wrap the scroll were sent for radiocarbon testing to determine the dating. The results showed that the scroll’s inner wrapping dates from around 1100BC, while the other fabrics are both much younger, around 400BC. Regina Hölzl, the director of the museum’s Egyptian and Near Eastern collection, believes it very likely that the scroll was deliberately inserted into the ibis cone in Ptolemaic times to raise the votive value of the mummy. The discovery suggests that other ibis mummies could also hold papyri.
Conservators had to devise a special method to flatten the text. Because of its brittle condition, it was first treated in a humid chamber to restore the flexibility of the fibres. The papyrus was then treated with cellulose and smoothed with the aid of a suction table and weights. The text was in hieratic cursive writing used for everyday documents. Robert Demarée of the University of Leiden, who deciphered it, was able to confirm that the scroll was written by the scribe Thutmose who records his name in the document. His handwriting is also known from examples in a number of museums including the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Egyptian Museum in Turin. The text is the equivalent of a notebook or cashbook in which Thutmose recorded his business transactions. He listed supplies that he used, such as copper, turquoise and lapis lazuli, and objects he bought, including amulets and jewellery. Thutmose also recorded that some clothing was stolen from his house and he named the suspected thieves: Amenhotep son of Qenna, Nesamenope son of Hay, and Pentawemet.
A 12-week old Weimaraner puppy is the latest addition to Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Protective Services Team. Riley is part of a pilot programme. After a year’s training, his job will be to sniff out pests, such as moths and beetles that may be lurking in works made from organic materials like wool, silk and cotton. Weimaraners are highly intelligent, with an incredible sense of smell, and have the stamina to work long hours.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture