Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker on the five steps to successfully completing a seemingly ever more impossible mission. Collecting is no easy matter. The frantic activity of the latter half of the 19th century and the heady take-it-all bonanza of the post-war years are things of the past. Acquisition Funds, if surviving at all, are increasingly being squeezed. Many collections are coming under threat. But collecting is, of its very nature, a future focused activity and we must nurture something of the essence of that maverick spirit which built those very collections we work so hard to protect, promote and develop
About the author: Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker is Head of Collections at the Science Museum, London. He began his career as Assistant Curator – Documentation in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum in 1990 and was a Visiting Fellow (Collections) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1999. Hadrian is a Trustee of the Collections Trust and Chair of Arts Council England’s Accreditation Committee for museums and galleries.
“…Richard found himself, on otherwise sensible weekends, accompanying her to places like the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, where he learned that walking around galleries too long hurts your feet, that the great art treasures of the world all blur into each other after a while, and that it is almost beyond the human capacity for belief to accept how much museum cafeterias will brazenly charge for a slice of cake and a cup of tea” – Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
So that is what comes of all the heartache, hard work, long days and sleepless nights – the passion of a Sir Hans Sloane (whose collections formed the nucleus of those currently held by The British Museum and National History Museum in London) and the determination of an Amelia Edwards (whose pioneering work in Egypt led to the formation of what is now the Egypt Exploration Society)? One can only hope that the visitor experience outlined above, as well as being intentionally humorous, is atypical.
Collecting is no easy matter. The frantic activity of the latter half of the 19th century and the heady take-it-all bonanza of the post-war years are things of the past. A past that still often comes back to haunt and bite us as we work through our overcrowded stores. The international markets for fine and decorative arts have gone crazy and auction prices are nearly always prohibitive. Acquisition Funds, if surviving at all, are increasingly being squeezed. Many collections are coming under threat and increasingly being harvested for financial gain. In these times of austerity, that millennial feast of huge capital projects and soaring ambitions may seem, if not a myth, little more than a dim and distant memory.
Step 1: Be aware of what’s available (while it’s still actually available) Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ photographed in March 1876 outside the Southern Galleries of the South Kensington Museum. Designed by George (1781-1848) and Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) and built by Robert Stephenson & Company in Newcastle in 1829. It became famous by winning the Rainhill Trials; a competition held to establish the most efficient locomotive for railway haulage. It ran on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway between 1829 and 1836, and following its sale, at the Brampton Colliery Railway in Cumberland between 1836 and 1840. Bennet Woodcroft (1803-79), founder director of the Patent Office Museum, through his own efforts ensured the perseveration of this ‘icon’, and many others of similar significance. Messrs Thompson donated the by then derelict locomotive to the Patent Office Museum in 1862. ©Science Museum – Science & Society Picture Library
Although attracting huge and ever increasing visitor numbers museums are often erroneously presented as being dead, forbidding places, things of the past and as artefacts in their own right. Strangely football supporters never feel it necessary to justify their enthusiasm; museum or gallery goers often do. Of course, the role public funding has played in building and sustaining museums and great collections, especially within the United Kingdom and across Europe, is responsible for this additional level of scrutiny.
“Stores are full. Everything is deteriorating and no-one is interested in all this stuff anyway”
Stores are full. Everything is deteriorating and no-one is interested in all this stuff anyway. It all just costs too much money and the return on investment is difficult or nearly impossible to evidence. And, anyway, what can you actually collect in this increasingly high-tech and virtual world of born digital, Big Science, bio-degradable materials and co-curation, co-creation and co-collecting projects?
Step 2: Build and nurture relationships (they might yield fruit in the future): James Lovelock (b 1919), a British chemist and pioneer in the field of environmental science, developed this highly sensitive electron capture detector for a gas chromatograph for measuring air pollution in 1960. In the summer of 1967 he measured the supposedly clean air blowing off the Atlantic onto the west coast of Ireland and found that it contained chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), now known to cause ozone depletion. He elaborated his famous, but controversial, Gaia hypothesis in 1972, in which he proposed that all life on Earth interacts with the physical environment, to form a complex system which can be thought of as a single organism. The Science Museum acquired this object in 1977. The Museum was fortunate enough, during 2012, to acquire Lovelock’s complete archive and a number of other laboratory instruments all either designed, constructed or used by him. © Science Museum – Science & Society Picture Library
Yet we all know that museums and galleries, libraries and archives, make an essential contribution to an individual’s and a Nation’s well-being and wealth – increasing the cultural and science capital of communities and individuals alike. We all know stories of lives transformed or turned around and of seemingly impossible ambitions realised. Many of us working in museums and galleries have witnessed these transformations or are ourselves living proofs of this phenomenon.
“What then does the future hold? Does Collecting have a future? Of course it does. It quite simply must do”
What then does the future hold? Does Collecting have a future? Of course it does. It quite simply must do. The thrill of the actual and of the unique storytelling power of objects to attract and communicate to audiences in ever changing and new ways is felt and experienced everyday and will continue to be so.
Step Three: Don’t always do the same things (acquire and/or commission the unexpected or surprising): Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, Listening Post I/III, 2003. Listening Post is a ‘dynamic portrait’ of online communication, displaying uncensored fragments of text, sampled in real-time, from public internet chatrooms and bulletin boards. By pulling text quotes from thousands of unwitting contributors’ postings, Listening Post allows you to experience an extraordinary snapshot of the internet and gain a great sense of the humanity behind the data. This artwork is acknowledged as a masterpiece of electronic and contemporary art and a monument to the ways we find to connect with each other and express our identities online. Listening Post was acquired for the Science Museum’s permanent collection with generous assistance from the Art Fund. ©Science Museum – Science & Society Picture Library
Collecting is, of its very nature, a future focused activity. A bringing together of a representative sample of the material culture of the present and the past, a coming together of possibly disparate parts to tell a greater, more complex story, open to numerous, changing and often conflicting interpretations.
A great collection is a living thing that changes and develops over time. And luckily, human ingenuity and creativity show no signs of diminishing or ceasing to exist so the source material is always out there waiting for us.
“Collecting is, of its very nature, a future focused activity, A great collection is a living thing that changes and develops over time”
Collections development and the very personal act of collecting – of identifying and securing that very special and desirable thing – remain at the very heart of curatorial practice. Serendipity can and often does play a part, the surprising and unexpected arrival, that unsolicited but answer-to-a-prayer donation, but nevertheless there is always the thrill of the chase and the consummate satisfaction of a job well done and an aim achieved when that particular object is formally accessioned into the collection.
Step Four: Always be ready to respond to the unexpected (you never know what’s just around the corner): These fragments (right), dated to c. 520 CE, are the remains of a portable Byzantine sundial-calendar and provide direct evidence for the transmission of mechanical technology from the Hellenistic to Islamic world. This object, previously unknown, was acquired by the Science Museum in 1983 after it had been unexpectedly brought into the Museum for examination and identification. ©Science Museum – Science & Society Picture Library
Acquisitions, the must-haves, the high-profile ones are more often than not the product of minutely planned and highly orchestrated campaigns. Today the successful curator intent on developing the collection must demonstrate the artistic and cultural sensitivities of the Medici allied with those of Süleyman the Magnificent, the determination of Boudicca, the organisational abilities of Augustus, and the strategic invention of Napoleon and Wellington combined with the foresight of Nostradamus and the political acumen of Machiavelli.
“Often the objects which will speak so eloquently to our successors are not necessarily those that have the greatest relevance for us”
We know that often the objects which will speak so eloquently to our successors are not necessarily those that have the greatest relevance for us. We might not always get it right and make the right choices. The long sought after thing might turn out to be a dud or a future embarrassment. This is all part of the thrill, all part of our legacy to the future.
It’s a big ask – but it is really worth it.
Step Five: Aim high (don’t be afraid to dream or of getting it wrong): Some objects will always get away. You will make mistakes and some of them might well come back to haunt you or your successors. There isn’t a collections cupboard out there that doesn’t provide a very comfortable home for at least one or two skeletons. Don’t worry. We learn from failures or mistakes. It is all part of the fun. It all helps to make sure that we don’t just do what has always been done
We do live in challenging times. This will always be the case. Challenges are never wholly absent. It is just that circumstances change. Our very challenging present will be presented in ten, twenty or thirty years’ time by someone as their very own Golden Age – that time when things were either great or exciting, better or just plain different.
“I propose that just occasionally we throw discretion to winds and throw the rule book out of the window. Well, if not quite that, at least hide it away in a drawer for a while and forget about it”
I want to propose something quite radical in these times when we all quite rightly spend so much time demonstrating how professional we are. I want to propose that just occasionally, perhaps one day each year, we throw discretion to winds and throw the rule book out of the window. Well, if not quite that, at least hide it away in a drawer for a while and forget about it. To make sure that in fifty or one hundred or two hundred years our successors still have great objects and relevant and intriguing collections to interpret, research and display we must ensure that policy and procedure impose discipline rather than become a paralysing control mechanism regulating every decision or choice we make, resulting in stasis.
We must surely rise to and meet the challenges of rationalisation and sustainability. We have no choice if museums and galleries, let alone the collections they hold, are to survive and thrive. But we need also, and just perhaps more importantly, to safeguard the idiosyncratic and the creative, those very qualities that made them great in first place.
We must nurture something of the essence of that maverick spirit which built those very collections we work so hard to protect, promote and develop. We need to move forward driven by passion tempered but not enervated by objectivity often alien to the true enthusiast. We need to do this to ensure that the museums and galleries and collections of the future are actual and object-rich as well as meaningfully virtual or interactive.
All that stuff really does have a purpose. Here, I may run the risk of revealing myself as being a right, old fuddy-duddy. This stuff is what demonstrates what is so great about being human and so necessary to making sure that we continue to learn the lessons of both our individual and collective triumphs and disasters, our values and beliefs. Please believe me, there will always be people for whom ‘all the great art treasures of the world’ do not ‘blur into one’.
Save the Planet! Collect something quirky! Give our successors the evidence that we are just as creative, innovative and unpredictable as they will, no doubt, believe themselves to be. Upon consideration it appears very likely that the future will turn out to be very similar or, at least, bear a very strong resemblance to our present or the past.
Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker
Head of Collections, Science Museum, London
• Thanks are extended to colleagues, past and present, for information and notes concerning the objects illustrated
• All other views expressed or errors contained above are entirely the property or responsibility of the author