The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2012

A Sixteenth Sounding: The Best as the Enemy of the Good

Utopian Approaches to Professional Practice in UK Museums

Our own Helen Wilkinson worked at the documentation department at the V&A in the 1990s, where she first encountered the phrase 'The Best as the Enemy of the Good' - that perfectionism can be damaging, as well as idealistic. Whilst Helen was working there, a new state of the art cataloging system was being implemented.

But no one wanted it to use it - neither the senior nor junior curators. Why had this solution, which was to complex and too perfect, been implemented? In the 1980s, the care of collections at National museums had been audited, in the government's scrutiny of the use of public money. It was a particularly horrible period for all concerned; collections care was considered to be in a terrible state.

This fear of repeating the mistakes and negligence of the past - indeed, clearing it up - has significantly impacted upon professional practice. Helen has much experience in this - a practitioner herself for many years, she is now here studying the history of curatorial practice for her thesis. Looking currently at documentation in which museum practitioners reflect on their own practice, she can trace a common theme from the post war period - the strive towards perfection, planning, and forward movement. The dark days of the past are often referred to, and one generation's utopia becomes the dystopia of the next.

In the immediate post war period New Walk was home to very important people and activities in the development of professional practice, and in the Special Collections here at Leicester, we can find much of the literature which they published - and which is really telling. In 1955, too the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery published a document which showcases how the turn from collecting to public display in that period was considered a search towards a perfectible ideal. A large scale redevelopment of Paisley Museum in 1970 resulted in a document which also shows how attitudes towards the staff needed - specialists, not hobbyists, with technical professional, particularly museological skills. Constantly, it seems, the rejection of the past recurrs.

The decades following World War Two were periods of public reconstruction. Even in the 1960s, many museums were still repairing the damage done by the bombs, and many new municipal museums were opened as towns tried to imagine themselves as parts of this sleek new modernity. Codes of Ethics and minimum standards for practice and training were established, new specialist groups, and protests against a lack of the professions recognition were also prominent, and the professionalization of the museum increased exponentially.

In the 1960s, too, University level courses in Museum Studies and practice were developed - first here at Leicester, and then slightly later at Manchester. Again, this is perhaps evidence for that strive towards to ideal - in the perfected, rarefied atmosphere of the University, however, the constraints of practice were not always realized.

Why has this drive towards perfection been so powerful? As Liisi's discussion yesterday showed, given time, objects and space, anyone can create a museum. perhaps the professionalism drive, Helen suggests, is in part an attempt to distance between the professional practitioner, and the amateur - a rather longstanding issue, and one which Helen has yet to think through.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a whole series of reports and investigations, including some funded by the Carnegie Foundation, suggested that museums should concentrate on the local, rather than the universal collections of the past. But there are hints that, with localism and standardized, scientific displays and contents, the drive towards professionalism leads towards dullness, leads towards a lack of engagement with the visitor and, perhaps, a loss of poetry.

Perhaps a better focus for the Utopian drive should be focused not upon the profession's development, but upon the engagement with and desires of, the public.

I myself worry about standards. The risk, for me, is that in driving towards the ideal, we risk a number of hegemonic errors. Not only do we reduce the nature of museums to measurable elements, we also flatten them, give them identical rules which lead to their increasing similitude. Particularly of concern too is the loss of the past - we should think, perhaps, of what we loose when we change and standardise our practice. We need to give room to the idiosyncratic and the strange. Each individual museum should be recognized - celebrated - for the bizarre, peculiar, curious thing it is - and this, perhaps, is the closest we can get to utopia.

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