"Collecting today for tomorrow"
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.
H. W. Van Os
Director General of the
Chairperson of the International Committee
of Fine Art (ICFA).
Chairperson of the International
Committee of Numismatics (ICOMON)
Martin R. Schärer
Chairperson of the International
Committee of Museology (ICOFOM)
and of the Swiss National Committee
Do you think that collecting and making acquisitions
are important challenges for the future of museums?
- 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.
- Yes, especially if the items in question are offered
to museums as donations, and if they come from serious
- 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.
What policy does your establishment have for enriching
its collections? Can you explain your choices, their
advantages, and the possible risks you are taking?
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Can you explain the mechanics of acquisition and collecting,
through examples in different countries that you believe
are particularly significant?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
What, in your opinion, are the main obstacles to museum
professionals regarding purchasing campaigns and enriching
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Do we collect today in the same way as in the past?
What has changed for museums over the last fifty years?
- 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.
- 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.