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1996 "Collecting today for tomorrow"
International Museum  Day 1996

International Museums Day on 18th May 1996, which is particularly important this year because it coincides with our Organisation's fiftieth anniversary, is on the theme of "Collecting today for tomorrow". This touches on the very raison d'être of the museum, and its essential relationship with the notion of temporality. ICOM News would first like to record reactions to the theme by various International Committee chairpersons. Then, to open up the debate, we are making a wide appeal to our readers for contributions, which will enrich the information file we are compiling to accompany this year's International Museums Day. So, to begin the discussion, and to take the opportunity to make the public more aware of the role of museums as we reach the turn of the century, here are five key questions of concern to all museum professionals.

Reactions of 3 International Committee persons

Professor H. W. Van Os
Director General of the
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam,
The Netherlands.
Chairperson of the International Committee
of Fine Art (ICFA).
Dr. Mando Oeconomides
Director, Numismatic Museum,
Athens, Greece.
Chairperson of the International
Committee of Numismatics (ICOMON)
Dr. Martin R. Schärer
Director, Alimentarium,
Musée de l'alimentation,
Vevey Switzerland.
Chairperson of the International
Committee of Museology (ICOFOM)
and of the Swiss National Committee
1. Do you think that collecting and making acquisitions are important challenges for the future of museums? 1 - Yes, museum collections can never be static. In the art world, tastes are constantly evolving, and this creates a need for collecting in new fields. 1 - Yes, especially if the items in question are offered to museums as donations, and if they come from serious collectors. 1 - Of course! Even though exhibitions and communication missions supported by sponsors are what the public is more aware of, collecting is part of a museum's basic work and should never be neglected.
2. What policy does your establishment have for enriching its collections? Can you explain your choices, their advantages, and the possible risks you are taking? 2 - We have drawn up a rule whereby what we collect should relate in a well-defined way to what we have in our collections. For example, we do not buy paintings outside the Dutch school. However, we do acquire Dutch paintings that do not fit into the traditional canon of what Dutch art is or should be about. In the field of decorative arts, we buy more 19th century items than before, because tastes have changed in decorative art from this period. Our choices can be put at risk by financial restrictions, and political pressure to change policy. 2 - The Numismatic Museum in Athens enriches its collections through State purchases, donations and bequests. The major risk to the museum, in terms of its collecting policy, is to do with the origin of the items; it always has to be very careful. 2-The Alimentarium in Vevey, the Foodstuffs Museum that I manage, collects, on a very selective basis, items to do with the preservation, processing, sale and preparation of foodstuffs, and less often with objects to do with production (farming) and consumption (table sets, etc.). As a general rule, we keep to European products. The fact that our collection is limited is due to the precision of the museum programme. It is not a question of enlarging the collection quantitatively, but illustrating what we call the foodstuffs adventure as precisely as possible. With our own funds, which are modest, we cannot afford to go on big purchasing campaigns. When we have temporary exhibitions we can display new objects thanks to exchanges with other museums. However, in the coming years we plan to overhaul our permanent exhibitions completely, which means that we can redefine and increase acquisitions.
3. Can you explain the mechanics of acquisition and collecting, through examples in different countries that you believe are particularly significant? 3 - The initiative to buy most often comes from the different curators and heads of museum departments. They put their proposals to the director of collections, who discusses the most expensive purchases with me. The director general plays an important role in fund raising. 3 - In every country, but more so in Greece and Italy, which are the homelands par excellence of antiquities of western civilisation, acquisition methods are governed by specific legislation. 3 - In Switzerland, as elsewhere, acquisition methods vary, but budget restrictions mean that museums have less room to manoeuvre when it comes purely and simply to purchases. If we want to continue increasing museum heritage, we have to use our imagination! I think, for instance, that it would be a good idea to give people tax breaks for donating to museums, and to encourage this through well-prepared campaigns for temporary exhibitions.
4. What, in your opinion, are the main obstacles to museum professionals regarding purchasing campaigns and enriching cultural heritage? 4 - Any new acquisition should always be an improvement to the collection. When exhibition space is limited, the newly acquired work is displayed in the permanent collection, at the expense of another work of art. 4 - One of the obstacles numismatic museums have in obtaining exact information about collections they may wish to acquire, is the relative mistrust of collectors. These latter prefer absolute discretion for fear of coming up against a confiscation procedure, especially if they have not straightened out their position by getting an ownership certificate from the Ministry of Culture. 4 - The main obstacles are budget restrictions, which also affect commitment by curators and restorers. Then there is growing pressure from the authorities and sponsors, who urge us to organise exhibition-events to attract as many visitors as possible. This could lead to neglecting the basic work, which is carried out behind the scenes.
5. Do we collect today in the same way as in the past? What has changed for museums over the last fifty years? 5 - We still buy works because of lacunae in our collections. But we are much more selective than before, and care more about the public appeal of the objects we purchase. 5 - The basic problems are the same. Choices for collecting are governed by present day criteria, without it being possible to foresee what will govern future generations. In the future, if it becomes more difficult to purchase objects, one of the possibilities could be to increase documentation. So, if we cannot get the items themselves, we will at least be better informed.

Updated: 15 September 2005