Recollecting in Ennis - The IMA Spring Seminar, 5th - 7th March 2004

Irish Museums Association Newsletter, September 2004

By Robert Nicholson

As a witness to the infamous 1982 seminar in Ennis, memorable less for its contribution to museology than for rancid scenes of debauch and claustrophobia, it was with some qualms that I headed westwards to the Old Ground Hotel for a promising programme under the title Collecting Today for Tomorrow: balancing vision with resources.

On arrival I made a dutiful pilgrimage to the Queen’s Hotel to visit the place where Rudolph Bloom committed suicide in 1886, thus (in my case as well as his) unfortunately missing the excellent workshop on landscape management in the Burren as a case study in the addressing by museums of contemporary civic issues.

A collective of curators (this must surely be the term) in the bar was brought on a walk to Glór for a reception by Ennis Town Council, where Pat Cooke, another self-confessed survivor of the 1982 atrocity, was awarded a statue of the dying Cuchulainn, and the rest of the evening was devoted to conviviality.

Next morning Pat introduced the 25th IMA spring seminar with a glance back at the heritage boom. Launched with a shower of EU funding in 1989 44% of all Irish museums now in business came into being in the following ten years. Without ongoing support several new projects have already foundered, and the controversies of Mullaghmore and Carrickmines have raised questions about the values we put on heritage and related projects. As the museum world settles down after the boom, initiatives such as the museums accreditation scheme and the Clare Heritage Circle are pointing the way forward, and the IMA itself will soon be a limited organisation with a full-time servicing officer.

Stuart Davies, bearing the lengthy title of Director of Research and Strategic Development at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, rose to speak about integration as a strategy for collection management. The MLA, representing an integration of the various institutions in England which record and collect heritage, came into being in 1977. Its first major initiative, “Renaissance in the Regions”, was to place museums in the national network rather than concentrating on regional centres. Funding at present is simply at subsistence level, but by 2005/6 the Government input will rise to £30 million, to be invested in regional “hubs”; eventually funding will rise to £60 million and will directly benefit all parts of the museum network. The general policy is to move the museum community and to demonstrate the value of these institutions by their contribution to people’s lives.

John O’Hagan, of the Department of Economics in Trinity College, was invited to place the cat of economics among the museological pigeons, and proposed the novel heresy that art museums should be able to balance their collections by selling surplus items to buy others. Why be rich in unsaleable assets if you are poor in resources? Nor should museums feel obliged to give free admission: why should they not be funded by their own visitors rather than by the remote taxpayer? Research shows that charging does not greatly affect attendance and that paying visitors tend to stay longer.

From the prospect of a constructive engagement with economics we moved to contemporary collecting, a topic presented by Eva Fagerborg, curator with the SAMDOK secretariat in Sweden. SAMDOK, a voluntary network of Swedish museums, was founded in 1977 to collect and document the present. Systematically covering various fields of human activity between them, they have amassed collections of artefacts, photographs and interviews generally featuring normal daily life but also exploring the dark side – in respect of which an intriguing photograph was shown of 117 of the 250 sharp objects confiscated at Stockholm airport on 10th September 2001.

The complexities of contemporary collecting were also revealed by Cathy Ross of the Museum of London, a body formed from the Guildhall Museum and the London Museum. Always broad-minded about collecting, the Museum had tended to over-collect. Successive curators had adopted different metaphors to define the collection – a mirror, an encyclopedia, a rescue of disappearing objects, and currently a newspaper – and the present policy is to restrict collection to hitherto under-represented areas. Material must be supported by “rich contextual information”. In a museum where undocumented items keep appearing in cupboards, deaccessioning has been accepted in principal but has not worked out in practice.

Fortified by lunch, the seminar reassembled for a session about the nature of private art collecting with Patrick T Murphy, himself a collector of long experience who had begun with stamps, cigarette cards and books before heading for the galleries. He traced the history of collecting from the Grand Tour to the “investment” collectors of the late twentieth century and concluded with a slide show of the things of beauty which he had had the pleasure of collecting himself.

Next up was Peter Woodman of UCC with some salutary tales about deaccessioning from the past. The sale and dispersal of large private archaeological collections in the nineteenth century led to the loss of countless artefacts, sold abroad as individual “antiquities” with little indication of source or provenance. Frequently items from the same excavations were separated and the contextual information lost. Only the tenuous evidence of old collection catalogues and auction lists can provide the links to reunite them. Professor Woodman warned that even now apparently useless material should not be deaccessioned in case the technology to examine it further should be developed.

The final speaker of the day was Catherine Marshall, Head of Collection at IMMA, on “Sustaining and Raiding the Larder”. From humble beginnings (a large building, a non-existent collection and £90,000 to spend) IMMA has built up a collection of Irish art through judicious acquisition, commissions, gifts and loans and loan-exchanges with other institutions. By buying directly from students and established artists they built up good relationships which occasionally result in gifts. Some acquisitions have involved community projects which reap benefits in the PR department. They have avoided deaccessioning and want to show artists that IMMA is there for them.

The afternoon wound up with a lively plenary discussion in which deaccessioning was as much of a topic as collecting. An opportunity was also afforded to Virginia Teehan to convey the objections of the Hunt Museum to the paper by Ciarán Mc Gonigal in Museum Ireland. In conclusion bottle-shaped tributes were made to the seminar organisers and everyone beat a retreat to the bar.

Rejoicing in Ireland’s victory over England in rugby, we proceeded eventually to Clare Museum and a reception in the adjoining Clare County Council chamber. The entire complex occupied the building of a former convent, in the Great Hall of which we presently convened for dinner. From the menu (which welcomed “The Irish Spring Association”) we turned our eyes to the ecclesiastical architecture, curiously embellished with faux marble pillars and stained glass windows glorifying well known brands of beer and spirits. Back at the hotel afterwards the lift was out of order, an ominous damp patch was spreading across the lounge ceiling, and a certain IMA member had smuggled in a dog.

A few survivors of the evening’s jovialities came out the next morning on a trip to Corofin to visit the Genealogy Centre and the nearby museum. In the heart of the limestone country we also visited the Burren Heritage Centre at Kilfenora, transformed with vivid displays and state-of-the-art technology.

In conclusion, as always, congratulations and thanks are due to the seminar organisers – Brongah Cleary, Lesley Simpson, and our host in Ennis, John Rattigan – for a stimulating programme and a well-run weekend.

Workshop, Friday 5th March

By Nigel Monaghan

A key ingredient in the annual Spring Seminar is the Friday afternoon workshop. In the past these have aimed at being an open forum where new approaches have been aired and lively debate generated.

This year the workshop was entitled Have museums a role to play in addressing contemporary civic issues? It used the Burren as a case study. Presentations by Ms Congella Maguire, Clare Heritage Officer; Dr Brendan Dunford, an environmental consultant; Mr Paddy Maher, Manager, The Burren Centre explored how museums could play a role in connecting the efforts of various groups in raising awareness of this great landscape treasure.

The discussion was chaired by Dr Jonathon Bell, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. A few eyes were opened, none more so than those of us with museum backgrounds, realising how much work has to go in to making our approach more relevant in wider heritage debates.

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