The ubiquity of antiquity

January 11, 2002

Keith Thomson believes that there are too many museums and that they cost too much money. The answer, he tells Caroline Davis, is a clear out and a decent business plan.

Keith Thomson, director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, loves museums. He also thinks there are too many of them, that they should sell off many objects and, most surprisingly, that they should not ask for more public money.

Next week Thomson's book about museums, Treasures on Earth : Museums , Collections and Paradoxes , is published by Faber and Faber (£12.99). It is aimed not at museum professionals but at the general public. In it, he describes the paradoxes inherent in the museum sector and the problems it faces. He says that his conclusions are likely to be unpopular, particularly within the museum community.

Before coming to Oxford three years ago, Thomson was president of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Before that, he was director of Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History, where he was inspired to write Treasures .

"I'd gone to a meeting of the American Association of Museums," Thomson recalls. "A staff member was boasting that there had been a new museum founded once a day from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Everybody thought this was wonderful. I thought it was appalling."

From dinosaur fossils to pop stars' underwear and the proverbial kitchen sink, someone somewhere is building up a collection. "I've been trying so hard to find something somewhere that someone doesn't collect," Thomson says. "It's impossible, and sooner or later those collections get into museums."

He believes there are too few resources to support so many museums. People start with a small collection, amass more objects, then seek local or national government support. Each museum believes it has a right to public support and suddenly there is a huge resource problem.

"There are no checks and balances," he says. "Collecting specimens is good, having large collections is good, having museums is good, having more museums is good. But eventually, you can have too much of a good thing. I started looking at the business upside down. I stepped outside the charmed circle of museum directors and saw all these things that had been bothering me for a long time and decided to write a little essay."

His aim is to reach people who care about museums and ask them to step back and consider the difficult choices that have to be made. The government is serious about promoting museums. In October, the Regional Museums Task Force, set up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, published its report, Renaissance in the Regions : A New Vision for England's Museums , calling for more than £267 million to be invested in regional museum centres of excellence over the next five years. In December, national museums and galleries were allowed to reclaim VAT, enabling them to scrap entry charges.

"I didn't want to write a call for more money," Thomson explains. "You can never have enough money the way we are structured now. And people are much more interested, quite rightly, in the National Health Service and having police on the street. We have to be worthy of any new money the government puts in."

To be worthy, Thomson believes museums need to take a more strategic approach and create business plans. Not collecting something, or deaccession - a euphemism for letting collections go - is vital. "You cannot save everything," he says. "The philosophy of the museum business is that every object has some information in it."

It is a terrible paradox. Many museums now find themselves maintaining warehouses in the countryside full of objects that no one has time to take care of and nobody has much interest in seeing.

But Thomson recognises that the decision over what to conserve is a difficult one. Like the question of which blue-skies research to fund, it is impossible to know which objects or specimens will later reveal useful knowledge. For example, broken eggshells saved for many years by the Peabody Museum turned out to be perfect for analysing the connection between pesticide DDT and eggshell thinning.

Thomson believes the role of museums as repositories needs more definition. A clear policy or business plan explaining the kind of objects worth collecting, and specifying which museums should collect what could eliminate duplication of collections across the sector.

"We need a public contract to say why we're doing that in a public heritage sense - and a business plan to say who is going to pay for what and where."

One museum professional, reviewing an early draft of his book, wrote: "Clearly, Professor Thomson has this absurd notion that museums should be run like businesses."

But Thomson argues that museums have an unstated public contract, a product and customers. There is the skeleton of a business plan there, couched in scholarly rather than commercial terms.

Unlike most businesses, however, museums do not fully own their assets. Even private museums are often seen as custodians for the public and are thus accountable to them for acquisitions and deaccessions. Moreover, while museums hold some of the world's most valuable cultural treasures, paradoxically, the institutions themselves are not necessarily wealthy. In fact, the more successful a museum is in attracting important collections, the more subsidies it needs. Insurance, maintenance, conservation and buildings are costly. And despite the museum conserving these objects for the public, only a small percentage are put on show.

With more objects in museums' custodianship, fewer are in general circulation, at auctions or languishing in charity shops. The result is that the public again finds it has less access to its heritage and to the joys of building collections. In his book, Thomson explains that collecting depends on the free market, but creates a closed market as objects are removed from the public realm, turning them into "invisible collections".

Museums also find themselves pulled in two directions by the communities they serve. Public visitors do not want to be overwhelmed by complicated displays of every object the museum owns, nor forced to foot the bill for their maintenance. Yet scholars need the collection to be as wide as possible.

Thomson's book calls for a public dialogue to create a strategic plan. The public, whose money supports these institutions, should be able to challenge any aspect of the institution and the money it spends. But in return, it must be prepared for extra costs.

In recent years, museums have begun to exploit their resources more readily. Wedding receptions, conferences, even fashion shows are held in their buildings, while gift shops and cafes are major earners. A controversial poster advertising the Victoria & Albert Museum famously proclaimed: "An ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached."

Thomson believes there must be a way of exploiting all the intellectual property bound up in museums. Unfortunately, he does not know how. "We have this information about insects from central Africa or lace-making in Nottingham, but we have not found a way of turning it into something we can sell," he says. "We're giving everything away. But if the public wants us to give everything away, the public's going to have to give us more money."

In his experience, Thomson says, the US fares little better, despite a tax regime that makes private donations to museums and universities attractive. There, museums receive more money, but this leads to increased pressure to accept objects and collections that they may not want. University museums do benefit, however. In the financial year to 2001, Harvard had enough of an operating surplus to invest in a new museum - riches beyond the wildest dreams of British university museums.

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