Tales from the Trenches: Professionalism

We academic museum studies types spend a lot of time picking apart the major issues of museology: how to act ethically, how to be socially responsible, how to educate effectively, etc. However, as anyone who has ever attended a local or regional museum association conference knows, the workers on the ground require more concrete advice and assistance: we're talking more along the lines of how to create an accession register or properly store artefacts. I teach an introductory course in museum studies, and have to balance the practical with the theoretical in every lecture, and I know I don't always get it right. But recently, it occurred to me that this gap is even greater when you factor in the average layperson audience, and I think we are not doing enough talking about professionalism when it comes to working with them.

(Warning: I am going to name and shame in this post.)

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit an exhibit about Faberge (the Russian imperial jeweller most famous for the opulent Easter eggs created for the Romanov Czar and his family) at the Peabody Essex Museum. I love the PEM, and have nothing but love for them, especially their gift shop. The exhibit actually originated with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, who hold a magnificent collection of Faberge pieces. The catalogue, which I could not afford to purchase, looked well-researched and exhaustive. The exhibition, however, failed disastrously because of glaring and repeated errors in the label copy. Several artefacts were mis-labelled in the cases (as in: the label referred to a different artefact nearby), there were spelling errors and typos, and strange omissions (surely the curator could have thought of something to say about one of the star pieces of the exhibition, the 1897 Imperial egg?). I asked the guards whether the museum was aware of these errors, and they said yes; however, although the show had been up for almost a month, nothing had been done to remedy the situation.

It all reminded me of an exhibition I went to years ago at the Tate, on the Gothic Revival in art. I went on the second-last day of the show, and by the time I got there, the public had taken matters into their own hands; errors, typos, and omissions had been corrected in pen on gallery labels by several enterprising visitors. That's what I call the interactive museum! I like to imagine that the guards allowed them to do this, knowing it was the only way the labels would be fixed! I was sorely disappointed in the Tate, although they redeemed themselves later that year with their stunning Holbein exhibit.

All joking aside, however, this sort of carelessness seems to me to be unprofessional. It threatens to undermine the intellectual authority of the museum (the existence of which can be critiqued but not dismissed even by academic types!) as well as the museum profession. I know that label copy is produced long in advance of a show; but especially in the case of a travelling exhibition, surely multiple museum workers at these institutions have walked through the displays to ensure that all is correct? And if they haven't, or if no measures have been taken to remedy mistakes, doesn't that speak badly of their commitment to museum best practice? We're not talking about the lazy parroting of old ideas, as many museums are wont to do (that is not so much unprofessional, as a lack of resources to hire the right professionals with that expertise); this is carelessness.

Professionalism isn't just about the big ideas; it's about attention to detail and considering the audience in everything we do in museums. Consider this a call to arms for meticulous museum studies!

ETA 25/07/13: Just read this hilarious article about why museum professionals are terrible visitors. My sincere apologies to the staff of museums such as the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, the PEM and others, who have had to read my rants in their visitor comment books!


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