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D. Doumas, The Culture of Exhibitions and Conservation, e-conservation Journal 1, 2013, pp. 34-45
Available online 22 November 2013

The Culture of Exhibitions and Conservation

Dimitrios Doumas

The article reflects on temporary exhibitions from a theoretical as well as practical perspective. Regarded as a particularly effective mass-communication medium, exhibitions have a dual nature: they are scholarly undertakings, bringing off a curator’s vision and, simultaneously, they are projects with economic implications that need to be well managed and administered. The role of conservation in the making of temporary exhibitions, either in-house or touring, is here discussed in relation to how work is planned and prioritized as well as how time is managed and staff is allocated. Reference to weaknesses that lessen the crucial input of conservation in the decision-making process is also made. Much of the debate, which focuses on art exhibitions, concerns practicalities encountered in a private museum that extend from the very early stages of selecting objects for display to the mounting of an exhibition.

1. Introduction

Nowadays, and after nearly a century of distant relationships between museums and the public, there has been a remarkable shift in attitude towards museum audiences. The art museum, structured upon art historical narratives and hierarchies of quality and style in both subject-matter and technique, has experienced the most dramatic change. It is common ground that a museum has to endeavour the challenges set not only by other museums and cultural organizations but by all sorts of services and products of the leisure industry that may appeal to people’s attentiveness and enjoyment. This fact, in conjunction with the increased interest in the cultural heritage field and an ever-growing competitive market, designated by a demanding audience and by a demand for an audience, are indicators of the need to approach museums from the viewpoint of general marketing reasoning, with implications for their economic viability. Today’s urge for financial sufficiency and competition enforces mass-communication as the key feature of museums that impinges on their staff, including conservators.

The necessity to popularize culture is best reflected in the temporary exhibition phenomenon. As multifaceted museological ventures and communication media, temporary exhibitions form part of contemporary culture, and aim for the education and entertainment (or vice versa) of the widest possible public in a way that benefits the museum in terms of finance and prestige as they forge a distinctive institutional profile [1].

2. Exhibitions as scholarly endeavour

Exhibitions are creative acts designated to deliver ideas and messages. Their narrative is the result of thorough research, normally conceived and implemented with a documentary and occasionally a historicist mentality. They are visually communicated, even though other senses may also be incorporated, offering visitors aesthetic experience regardless of their subject-matter (for even everyday utilitarian objects can assume, as exhibits, the quality of an aesthetic entity). And finally, set within an interpretative framework culturally influenced, they are cognitively construed and appreciated.

Exhibitions take place in a defined space and their physical layout may transform them into sites of functional design and spectacle. As three-dimensional constructions people can walk into and explore, they make effective use of formal elements: shape, volume, light, colour, texture or even sound, whereas the selection or the exclusion of objects, their arrangement and hierarchy within the exhibition gallery, their presentation and viewing conditions, the deployment of texts, imagery, semiotics and other material denote meaning that reflects curatorial choices.

Regardless of their subject matter, exhibitions are initially scholarly undertakings that reflect in practice curatorial aspirations and intentions. Their rationale entails selection, presentation and implication of relation that all form up into a statement [2]. In order for visitors to understand exhibition displays, meaning and method are pre-requisites. Curators are responsible for transforming matter into history, knowledge and discourse. Since museums are accountable for perpetuating an object system that enables the fixing of social existence and collective consciousness by reconstructing knowledge of the past or structuring knowledge of today for tomorrow, curators are those privileged intellectuals who generate culture and, in effect, create a cultural climate. An exhibition consists in a collection of entities that seem to share inherent significance, a value amplified by the fact that these entities have been gathered to make up a unity in one space. As such, it reflects the museum’s “unique capacity to teach by showing” [3]. Exhibitions, therefore, are enactments of the ability museum professionals have to offer contemplation and advice by selected experience. Within such mechanism, curators analyze and explore their subject, but neither are they independent nor do they possess the truth.

Temporary exhibitions have a time limit. Nowadays, what was once considered to be a fixed display has been superseded by the notion of temporariness, as the idea of permanence is gradually declining. This tendency relates to two factors. On the one hand, it is a consequence of the economic framework within which museums now operate since most institutions are dependent upon public assessment, namely attendance figures. It is thus expected that museums are confronted with greater challenges and demanding expectations. A permanent collection, no matter how significant or famous it is, cannot always be considered as having “box-office value” [4], at least not on its own. To think of museums in marketing terms is vital for their financial sustainability but it affects directly the museum’s value system and operational circumstances. On the other hand, the frequency in which social and cultural attitudes change calls for a continuous adjustment of interpretation, communication channels, modes of presentation and representation [5]. Either reason, the culture of exhibitions has changed to a certain extent traditional roles and expectations within the museum’s human resource structure and has added considerable workload to both curators and conservators.

Furthermore, the transient nature of temporary exhibitions enables innovation without putting at risk the museological approach and standards that the institution has adopted. Thus, experimentation with novel, untried or unconventional ideas that bring together and juxtapose diverse artefacts, ideas and concepts may take place [6]. In that sense, a museum may reinvent itself constantly offering new presentations and interpretations by producing alternative, even provocative at times, exhibitions of its own or loaned collections. Otherwise, it may strengthen its established identity so as to form a coherent audience. Hence, without underestimating its regular visitors, a museum can draw divergent segments of the public that may be circumstantial perhaps at first, but may eventually turn out to make up a consistent audience, which is of great benefit in every respect.

Either way, to orientate towards massive queues in front of admission desks indicates a concerted effort on behalf of the institution to attract and “entertain” a crowd rather than satisfy a group of people whose knowledge of, or interest in, the museum (or exhibition subject) is taken for granted. It is all about politics, and largely depends on the sponsorship involved, which usually articulates mainstream themes at the expense perhaps of topics of rigorous scholarship, whereas emphasis is placed on the commercial character of the undertaking so as to ensure success [1]. The criterion to raise visitor numbers and potential income can impose the implementation of spectacular shows at the cost of those of less dazzling themes, which nonetheless can be thoroughly researched and curated, but address a small group of intellectuals rather than a mass public.

The question of sponsorship is indeed determinant, particularly when it comes to private institutions. Private foundations enjoy more freedom and flexibility in terms of management, especially when compared with public museums and the bureaucratic scrutiny their administration is usually marked by. However, their exhibition programmes depend on sponsorship, which can become a considerable restraint. As a case in point, the Benaki Museum in Athens, the largest private museum in Greece, implements its exhibition programmes based solely on sponsorship, despite the fact that the institution is dependent to some extent on State Budget. That way, the operational costs of the museum are reduced to minimum. Nevertheless, any project, even low-budget ones, may be paused, modified, postponed, cancelled or may take priority over other ventures depending on the availability of funding. This drifting from one situation into another has obvious implications for the scheduling of tasks in both curatorial and conservation departments.

Nevertheless, contrary to the widespread belief that entertainment usually predominates over education when the two are combined, a museum and its activities are eventually judged by the quality the visit experience offers. This depends on the value its visitors place primarily on the displayed collection. Though it seems contradictory, successful popularization depends on sound scholarship and the ability of an institution to communicate with society and sense pragmatic, rather than fabricated tastes and needs.

Besides any theory and rationale behind them, temporary exhibitions as projects call for good management and involve a planning process that presumes a systematic approach. Within this framework, curators have the leading role and juggle with a multitude of requirements that encompass the ability to conduct thorough scholarly research in tandem with organizational skills necessary for the management of a variety of tasks that make up the undertaking, usually in a highly pressurized environment. Yet, apart from deciding on the theme and subject-matter of the exhibition, aside from producing interpretation and putting the whole thing together, a number of extra talents are required of curators. They must deal with political agendas, appeal to sponsors and collectors and, by implication, they assure access to all contributors without putting at risk the integrity of the institution, and in the case of modern and contemporary art museums and galleries, they advocate for artists and their work [7].

3. The Role of Conservation: Questions to Ponder On

Curation in setting up exhibitions is indeed a complex duty but so is conservation. Staging exhibitions is about effective teamwork because there are many jobs involved on different levels, time is usually limited, money never seems to be enough, and the exhibition programmes museums engage in get increasingly tight. On the one hand, this establishes a museum’s identity as a brand but, on the other, it turns curators and conservators into arts/culture administrators. Within this framework, conservators, just like curators, find themselves confronted by new roles to play and new requirements to meet, entailing administrative responsibilities that supersede the traditional notion of the bench conservator or even that of the preventive conservator.

So far, we had been accustomed to talk of the two principal roles of the museum, preservation and communication through use, as if they contradict each other [8]. However, this argument does not seem to be plausible any more. Indeed, there had been many instances in the past in which curators considered conservation viewpoints as an obstacle to their work because of the defensive, even inflexible, attitude conservators frequently adopted on how and when objects were to be used. Nowadays, the stereotype that preservation principles may work against communication or that communication may cancel out preservation attracts substantial criticism. There has been a change in attitude towards the use and interpretation of museum objects so that curators can no longer claim exclusive authority over the collections they are responsible for and conservators refrain from being stiff and over-protective. After all, conservation is not about isolating objects or shutting out the public; it is about making them safely accessible and usable again. This perspective, which places emphasis on the public and its needs rather than objects, impinges on policy formulation and decision making [9].

Nevertheless, this may entail a sort of compromise that relates to the fact that the position conservators occupy in the exhibition team is not always assumed or taken into account in the decision-making process. Conservators are not the ones who can permit or forbid the use of objects. Even in the case of unstable or delicate artefacts, they can only advise on the hazards involved in their possible display or, even worse, travel. However, if the museum management has already decided their deployment there is not much conservators can really do to reverse the decision. Correspondingly, conservators have limited power if objects are to be exhibited in conditions that are not ideal. Their expert knowledge on the risks entailed or if improvements are to be made is readily available, but that is as far as it goes. This again can become an issue of politics as it may depend on how strongly a museum wishes to form up collaborations with other cultural institutions. In order to achieve such goals a museum may be willing to make concessions sometimes and play down certain aspects including environmental parameters. Conservators are faithful to their standards but it is a question of how the museum wishes to incorporate them, either flexibly or rigidly as policy, and apply them judiciously [10]. Generally speaking, the practicing of preventive conservation as a field with financial implications goes far beyond the conservator’s duty. To create new storage areas, to improve or replace inappropriate display cases, to acquire up-to-date monitoring systems or to produce reports regularly are issues that fall within the administration’s authority. Conservators can only propose on such matters; they cannot resolve upon or against them, as the administration decides how budgets are to be distributed.

The question conservators should ponder on is whether exhibitions can actually do harm to objects or not. They are certainly good for museums but what about the displays themselves? The answer is not clear. Exhibitions can be good for the museum’s collections that are not on display, particularly when gallery space is limited because they maximise the use of the museum’s content that otherwise would remain in store. Hidden treasures stacked in poorly, disorganised and usually overcrowded basements get to see the light. This can only be good since they are checked, receive treatment, are relocated if necessary and their storage arrangements may be reconsidered once the exhibition is over. But even for travelling objects in touring exhibitions, the risks of getting damaged during packing/unpacking, transportation and mounting are no worse than the disaster of suffering a sudden water leakage in an inappropriate storeroom. Of course, it is far more likely that damage will eventually occur in a work of art that travels around a country or the globe when compared to one that stands still in the dark. No matter how sophisticated methods transport firms apply to gain (or retain) their good reputation, and in effect their contracts, there will always be vibration, shock or tiny little accidents that will make a fingerprint visible, cause a crack, loose a joint, or abrade the polished surface of a gilded frame relief, not to mention cracks and detachments, which may not be noticeable at first hand but get serious over time. It is therefore presumed that those in charge of the museum’s exhibition policy know well the collections they hold; can pick out which objects can or cannot be on display and/or travel and pinpoint conservation needs.

The issue is to have in advance a good grasp of the degree to which the museum succeeds in preserving its collections, and to do that it is crucial that regular surveys are conducted [10]. Surveys alert as they provide reliable and valid information on the general state of objects (i.e. excellent, satisfactory, poor, unacceptable), assess whether the storage conditions are appropriate or not tackling environmental issues, current or likely to occur, also indicating areas of improvement and help plan conservation work. But the key-point is that surveys precede and therefore pave the way for any museum activity that involves the use of artefacts.

Of course, temporary exhibitions do not concern objects in storage only but also encompass top permanent exhibits which are frequently selected precisely for their high status and significance. However, even though fully conserved in the past, such objects may be in a seriously fragile condition that frequent moves can only result in potential wear.
The making of exhibitions is a group activity within which conservators have a key-role that in many respects determines the various stages of the preparation and implementation of a show from the very inception of its theme and all way through to its dismounting. Conservators, as a group within a group, should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities and an equal share of tasks and assignments. However, as the project progresses it is likely that the initial planning will have to be reconsidered and adjusted, people may have to be reallocated and deadlines may move forward.

Conservators have a say, even though not definitive, in the choice of objects to be included in a display as they participate in putting together the preliminary and final object list depending on condition checking and conservation assessments. Once the selection is completed, documentation is performed and remedial conservation planning is made and implemented while any requirements of extra resources for preventive measures are considered. Conservators perform material testing and environmental monitoring. They may design supports and mounts themselves or give applicable instructions to designers and technicians regarding the construction of buffered display cases and the suitability of lining materials or any other fixing requirements and options. In that sense, conservators act rather as arbitrators who decode the museum specifications into technical mandate so as for the design professionals to fully comprehend what is required of them and reach to a solution that, on the one hand, matches the curator’s vision and, on the other, complies with conservation standards. Conservators supervise packing, transportation and installation. These issues are collaborative and presume a choice of the right contractors such as transport firm and handlers who are expected to do the job properly, come up with safe and cost-effective solutions and be faithful to the guidelines drawn up by the institution.

Couriering is another significant aspect of the conservators’ input to the making of exhibitions. However, this is not their exclusive responsibility; curators or registrars can do that as well. Couriers being present during all or most stages of the mounting should be able to: cross-check the state of the artefacts upon arrival and departure against the available condition reports; inspect and provide instructions and assistance on handling and mounting, if needed; and, in any way, they should be able to sort things out in the unlike event of an unpleasant incident taking place. For all these obvious reasons it is preferable that couriering is entrusted to conservators, as they are accountable for the physical integrity of objects and can intervene appropriately. But, there are other parameters involved in the assignment of couriering that may relate to practicalities (e.g. staff availability) or to the museum’s hierarchy, which in most cases is occupied by curators.

This is a brief outline of the conservators’ responsibilities throughout the entire project, which above all presumes a good working relationship and communication primarily with their peers, the curator and anyone else involved such as engineers, security staff, cleaners, etc.

Treating objects for exhibition is a question of good time management, which presumes a consensus on how work is prioritized so that all exhibits are meticulously inspected, while the best or more significant objects are taken care of attentively. The process is quantitative as well as qualitative. Evidently, it is rather unlikely that all artefacts involved in an exhibition will require remedial treatment on the same level. But even if they did, still it would not be possible to give each and every object the same attention: time and budget would not allow it. Whether artefacts need substantial structural and/or surface intervention, or simply require the minimum care, it is important for conservators to plan their work according to a damage category system based on how the condition of each artefact was graded during the inspection or survey of the collection. A major distinction should be made between works that need to be treated in the lab and those that can be dealt with in situ, namely in the exhibition gallery right before mounting with minor improvements. This is a common-sense step that can alleviate workload and reduce the frequent moves of artefacts from one place to another. An additional measure that can help monitor work progress is to differentiate works that need remedial treatment from those that require preventive care such as mounting in acid-free boards and replacement of loose fixings.

Exhibitions can increase remedial treatment sometimes overwhelmingly. To carry out consolidation on one hundred gilded frames, for instance, is indeed a considerable amount of labour but the relining and cleaning of just five paintings are, by far, more important in terms of their impact, the expertise they require and the workload entailed. This conjectural example simply illustrates that well-managed exhibition-led conservation does not depend on how many objects get to be treated, but on what is actually done to them.

Furthermore, conservation timetables can easily get ignored, though not necessarily on purpose. Occasionally, conservators are forced to work on the full treatment of heavily deteriorated objects and make them suitable for display at very short notice and with limited time in hand. This usually happens because certain works considered key exhibits are still subject to contract, negotiations may last longer or sponsorship may not be secured yet, which means that last-minute decisions or last minute entries may come up to disturb an agreed conservation plan of action. This is also the case when the project involves private collectors. Delays in the finalization of the loan list may occur because private owners are more hesitant as to loan their artefacts or not. This understandable reservation will bring on hold-ups amongst other steps, such as insurance and indemnity, in conservation planning if the selected works need treatment prior to exhibition.

In any case, exhibition-oriented work usually takes over at the expense of routine conservation activities, while any personal aspiration to carry out research on collections outside the confines of temporary exhibition projects or new displays is put off (the same applies to curators). All this can get better or worse depending to a large extent on the frequency in which the events succeed (or overlap) each other. It is essential that there is some reasonable “breathing space” between each show.

The installation of displays is a particularly significant stage in which artefacts and people are orchestrated within a fixed period of time. No matter how well ahead an exhibition has been prepared, this is a point when time simply never seems to be enough, particularly when the project involves many participants, meaning that many objects with different environmental, handling and fixing requisites will have to be installed and many couriers will have to be dealt with within a squeezed amount of time in order to keep budget within limits. Each courier, of course, will have his/her standards, priorities and demands, which will have to be considered and resolved promptly to meet the lender’s satisfaction and the opening date.

Having enough or the right conservators to carry out installation is not always a straightforward process. Evidently, a temporary exhibition on Venetian glass, for instance, will be prepared by the glass conservation team of the museum provided that there is one. If not, or if the number of specialist staff does not suffice to perform the task, the museum will have to employ outside contractors or collaborate with staff from fellow establishments. Alternatively, conservators from other in-house conservation divisions may assist or actually do the job themselves. On many occasions of exhibition preparation at the Benaki Museum, members of staff from the overstaffed paintings conservation department have been asked to support their peers from other understaffed sections and work on condition checking, supervise mounting or install artefacts that are not within their realm: metals, glass, textiles, prints, etc. This raises serious questions regarding the allocation of staff, which is also a time-dependent issue. Who is going to assist? How much time will this require? What will this mean in terms of extra person-days? How many people will be involved? What downside aspects will this slot-in work bring to the daily engagements of those who come to help in the process? Will people rotate the job? Is it ethical and sustainable to turn a specialist into a generalist out of necessity? Will there always be this kind of flexibility and adaptability readily available? If not, how can a similar situation be dealt with if extra staff is in short supply and the museum is unwilling or unable to hire freelancers to do the job? These are some of the commonest questions anyone in charge of a project or a group of people will have to think of well before any decision is taken. The project or conservation manager should be perceptive enough as to whether the amount of work involved can be handled within the estimated time-scale and whether the available staff is either enough or too few to run the project adequately and without disturbing work flow. This insight is not always given; it is acquired by experience.
Working with private collectors as lenders is another consideration in the making of temporary exhibitions. The recurring issue of coping with extra workload is apparent for a number of reasons. In most cases, the works involved will need some form of intervention but, even if they do not, condition reports, documentation and recording will be produced and assessments on their environmental needs or any potential risks during the exhibition will be made. This is an essential task that entails a lot of paperwork, which usually comes ready-made along with the loan and its courier if the lender is a heritage or cultural establishment.

Further concerns on how the private loan will be handled during packing/unpacking and mounting will have to be taken into account depending on the standards set by the owner. In extreme cases, and when no compromise between the lender and the borrower is reached, certain requirements on behalf of the collector, which may be too demanding and costly to satisfy, may lead to the cancellation of the loan. This can be a slippery slope if the owner the museum disagrees with is a wealthy individual who can be identified as a potentially valuable source of fund-raising and partnership. Again, how this predicament is sorted lies in the administration’s will.

In dealing with private works for exhibition preparation, museum conservators enter somehow the realm of a “disguised” freelancer-client relationship, although not in a contractual sense. In this correlation the conservators’ concerns, focused on the objects’ welfare, do not necessarily correspond to those of the collectors [11]. There is a distinguished difference between someone who systematically collects and someone who just happened to be the owner of an artwork in terms of how these two perceive conservation. Even if there is some sort of insight into museum work in general, the conservators’ role is rather understated because private owners are usually unaware of the implications of conservation and restoration. Besides, the majority of collectors place emphasis on the outward appearance of their works, but in very different terms. Some of them dread to think of any change induced to the way their artefact looks precisely because they do not know how restoration functions. On the other hand, but for the very same reason, there are those who expect the exact opposite effect, and that is to see their work “as good as new”. In any way, the ignorance of the true nature of conservation and restoration may relate to the fact that certain interventions such as varnish removal or retouching are more perceptible in that they have an immediate visual impact on the appearance of an artefact when compared to treatments like consolidation, which may not always be clearly understood. Caught between the two extremes, conservators are asked to perform what is ethically appropriate for the object, but within the limits of the exhibition’s brief, budget, preparation time and physical setting. At the same time, they should provide collectors with ample information and advice on the various treatment stages their works undergo. As for collectors, they should consent based on trust in the museum and the institutional role museum-practiced conservation is endowed with.

4. Conclusions

Exhibitions are seen as discursive spaces that can engender different stories each time they are on. The selection of displays, artists and epochs, the representation of “quality” and the fixing of art and cultural value are amongst the key features of exhibitions that denote a choice and an intention.
Within the context of inter-departmental collaboration, conservators have a decisive input as they stand between the displays and the curator, advocate for objects and their needs, despite the fact that their voice is not always heard, and mediate between the many different professionals or individual contributors involved in the undertaking. Aside their practical skills, conservators are asked to engage in many different tasks and increased responsibilities, cope with administrative work and underpin their performance on well-founded collections and human resource management. Regardless of their content, exhibitions constitute a field in which conservators can thrive, but only efficient planning and monitoring of work progress can guarantee successful implementation.

As museums and their collections grow, so do their needs. As a consequence, and in order to survive financially, museums now orientate towards the public. In this direction, temporary exhibitions have become a particularly effective tool. Nevertheless, with temporary exhibitions, museums face the challenge to reconcile their mission with the needs and forces of the market. Hence, the content and quality of the exhibition experience should favour quantity: the larger the audience, the better. Within this framework, conservators are the ones who can guarantee, apart from remedial interventions, those preservation conditions and measures that enable safe access to collections for display and interaction.

5. References

[1] E. Barker, Exhibiting the canon: the blockbuster show, in: E. Barker (ed.), Contemporary Cultures of Display, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999

[2] M. Baxandall, Exhibiting intention: some preconditions of the visual display of culturally purposeful objects, in: I. Karp, S.D. Lavine (eds.), Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1991

[3] H. Hein, The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 2000, p. 5

[4] L. Alloway, The great curatorial dim-out, in: R. Greenberg, B.W. Ferguson, S. Nairne (eds.), Thinking about Exhibitions, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 222

[5] K. Hudson, The museum refuses to stand still, in: B. Messias Carbonell (ed.), Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004

[6] M. Belcher, Exhibitions in Museums, Leicester University Press, Leicester/London, 1991

[7] K. Schubert, The Curator’s Egg: The Evolution of the Museum Concept from the French Revolution to the Present Day, One-Off Press, London, 2000

[8] C. Caple, Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method and Decision Making, Routledge, London, 2000

[9] E. Pye, Caring for the Past: Issues in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums, James & James, London, 2001

[10] S. Keene, Managing Conservation in Museums, Routledge, London, 2002

[11] H. Schinzel, Touching Visions: Essays on Restoration Theory and the Perception of Art, Ghent University/VUB Brussels University Press, Brussels, 2004

Dimitrios Doumas
Paintings Conservator
Private practice (Greece)
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Dimitrios completed his undergraduate studies in ‘Conservation and Restoration’ in 1999 and a Master of Arts in the ‘Conservation of Historic Objects’ from De Montfort University, UK in 2000. In 2010 he was awarded with a PhD at the University of Lincoln, UK. His thesis titled ‘Curatorship and Conservation: A Theoretical Enquiry into the Scope of Each Realm, their Interaction and the Consequences for the Perception of Works of Art’ explores the role of art conservators within the wider function of the art museum/gallery and particularly their relationship with curators.He has worked as a paintings conservator at the Benaki Museum Conservation Department, Athens from 2001 until 2012.



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