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March 12, 2012

What would you save? Museums or Libraries?

Filed under: Education,Museums & Exhibitions,News — Tags: , , , , , — Asif N @ 12:19 pm

At our last Museum Professionals MeetUp in London, an interesting question not only sparked a great discussion, but it has inspired me to share some thoughts – many of those based on our discussion. The question, in effect was:

“With government funding cuts across the UK, many libraries and museums are already closing their doors. What would you like to save, your local library or museum?”

It’s a very relevant question – but I don’t necessarily think it is the right way to approach the subject. Like small businesses, I think many museums and libraries have a rather bad attitude towards financial aid – just like small business believes it is entitled to public funding and money that the government should set aside for them, museums and libraries have also become increasingly reliant on such free money. Granted, museums and libraries make substantial (if not great) contributions to the intellectual, cultural and dare I say spiritual development of society, so they are actually entitled to social investment from public funds, but a big problem with both museums and libraries is the lack of guidance on how to invest this money effectively rather than just spending it.

The more project managers, curators and consultants I meet from the museum industry, the more I think that museums need guidance on how to maximize the money they spend. Just like big business has learnt to adopt cost efficient technologies and processes, museums must do the same. In addition to aiming for increased spending, museums MUST, in these difficult times, also look for ways to reduce existing expenditure.

The trouble is, neither museums nor libraries do that – the results, at least, are not visible in the UK. I’ve often also felt the same, self-destructive sentiment from museum and library employees:

“We’re already paid so little for what we do, so we don’t feel the need to drive change or change the way we work – we’d rather see the institution shut down.”

Whilst that is a paraphrase of the same sentiment from multiple individuals, it is a disturbing thought. Many of these people claim to have joined museums and libraries because of their love and passion for the arts and literary work, so this sentiment is disturbing at best.

Many museums, both large and small, can save hundreds of thousands of pounds each year by simply streamlining their processes, removing bureaucracy, spending money where it should be spent and utilising technology effectively. Management consulting has a saying: “Expensive is almost always cheaper” – and it is, in the long run. Museum employees have this attitude because of their years of volunteering – museums have this attitude because they don’t know anything other than volunteering!

I believe that we can save both our museums and our libraries. In fact, if the government and libraries put their head together (and maybe spoke to me or one of my colleagues, for instance), I don’t see any reason why libraries can’t compete with Amazon and why museums need to waste more money in times when museum revenues are falling.

Whilst I will discuss measures to help museums and libraries survive over the coming months, I think it’s only important to say that both museums and libraries MUST evolve, not just to engage visitors and readers, but to upgrade, make efficient and streamline their operational models.

August 7, 2011

V&A’s Jameel Prize 2011 is weak

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) happens to be one of my favoured larger London museums, but that’s not going to save this year’s Jameel prize. Whilst the Jameel Family and the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives (ALJCI) have done very well to raise awareness about Islamic Art and Craft (including their substantial donation for the Jameel Gallery at the V&A), the Jameel Prize 2011 is money wasted – something that would be better spent on preserving some of the traditional Islamic craft, or for that matter, helping feed people in the Horn of Africa.

Whilst it is no secret that I don’t really like contemporary or modern art, some of the quality of work shortlisted this year is just bad – and that’s the best thing I can say about it. Such contemporary art, when claimed that it is inspired by the traditions of Islamic craft and design, is simply insulting to those master craftsman who created some of the worlds most stunning textiles, calligraphy and architecture at the height of the Islamic Empire.

Contemporary artists sometimes fail to realize that the very basics of Islamic Art are about beauty, and I’m afraid that some of the works at this exhibition were far from being beautiful. Aisha Khalid’s ‘Name, Class and Subject’ , Hadieh Shafie’s ’22500′ paper scroll works or Soddy Sharifi’s ‘Frolicking Women’ are among the works included in the exhibition, and these suffer from the classic case of deficient contemporary art – don’t focus on making it beautiful, but write a fancy description about it. In fact, if you read the description provided for the works, some of them are plain wrong. Of Hadieh Shafie’s work, for instance, the V&A states that therein ‘the notion of meditative process, repetition and time  as found in Islamic art, craft and architecture is a constant element’. That’s actually quite inaccurate. Nothing about the Hadieh’s pieces in the exhibition represents this as it is done in Islamic Art. The application of the Breath of the Compassionate (or other such pattern) is representative of this meditative process and repetition, paper scrolls of varying sizes are not. Whilst I am not saying that the work is bad, it does not deserve any praise for its reference to a contemporary form of Islamic Art.

The exhibition wasn’t all bad, though. Some of the pieces were good – Aisha Khalid’s Kashmiri Shawl and Bita Ghezelayagh’s ‘Felt Memories’ tunic were some of the pieces that really stood out. Perhaps they were the least abstract of the lot and let their beauty and quality of work do the talking, which is what you would expect from a good work of art.

But don’t take my word for it – the exhibition runs until 25 September 2011. More information is available on http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/j/jameel-prize-2011-shortlist/.

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