Yesterday I attended a conference organised by the Art Fund about the value of museums. There were a number of stimulating discussions about what kind of value museums have and how that value operates.
There seemed to be a consensus that museums should focus on what they are really good at: collecting, looking after, researching and making accessible interesting and beautiful things. It was commented that museums can have social and economic benefits too, but that those are best delivered through that core purpose.
There were some fascinating and contrasting examples of ‘value’. At one end of the spectrum, Graham W.J. Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, described the struggle to preserve a collection which is threatened with sale in order to plug the pensions deficit of the city. At the other end, Jack Persekian, director of the Palestinian Museum – as yet without a building and without a collection – showed examples of the objects cherished by individual Palestinians, objectively modest things which nevertheless have enormous subjective power.
This investigation of ‘value’ reminded me of the collections of the National Trust, where the modest can sometimes be just as significant as the fine. The leather bucket shown above was once simply an item of fire prevention at Florence Court. But the way it was made, its aged appearance and its connection to a particular place now give it an distinct aura, speaking to us on a number of different levels.
The charming conceit of painting the house owner’s initial on the bucket in vaguely classical tendrils links it to a long tradition of classicised floral decoration. The boudoir at Attingham, in the second image above, is another, particularly fine example of that tradition. And that boudoir, in turn, demonstrates how objects never exist in a vacuum, but always ‘speak’ to other objects within certain spaces and relationships.
So that leads me to propose that the value of museums, and of heritage more widely, resides in relationships: between objects, between objects and places and between objects and people.