Museum heads should stay longer to develop, implement vision: Met Director

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Kolkata, April 27 (IANS) Observing there is “room for work” in Indian museums, Thomas Campbell, the departing Director of the celebrated The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or The Met as it is popularly known, says museum heads should stay for at least five years to articulate a vision and act on it.

“I think directors need to stay at least five years so that they can put in place, develop a vision and begin to enact that vision,” Campbell, The Met’s Director and CEO, told IANS during interactions from Brussels, Belgium and at the Indian Museum in Kolkata, when asked for his opinion on the tenure of directors of Indian museums.

Take his own case: Campbell is only the ninth director in The Met’s 147-year-old history — which works out to an average tenure of 16 years.

In contrast, Kolkata’s Indian Museum, the country’s oldest, saw a staggering 15 directors in the 50 years from 1962 to 2012. Of them, five were acting directors.

Shedding light on the trend of tenure of museum directors in the US, Campbell said they stay for five to 10 or sometimes even 15 to 20 years and most of them come from within the museum space itself.

“Some of them have been curators, like myself. I have been a specialist in European art before I became a Director. Typically, the directors come from the museum profession itself. They have had an opportunity to learn about the museum and about best practices,” he said.

Campbell started out at The Met in 1996 as an assistant curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and supervising curator of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center.

Following 13 years of curatorial experience, he was appointed the museum’s ninth Director in January, 2009, at the height of the recession.

He noted that though Indian museum directors come from varied backgrounds and bring important insights to their work, on the flipside they may not have had the exposure to best practises and discussions about the industry.

“I don’t want to criticise; I recognise that directors from Indian museums come from all sorts of backgrounds and they all bring important insights to their work through the background they have come, but the downside of people coming in from different professions is that they don’t relate to best practices, they may not have visited museums in other countries and they may not be exposed to a dialogue and discussion about the industry,” the 55-year-old said.

Vinod Daniel, Chairman of AusHeritage and Vice Chairman of the International Council of Museums – Committee for Conservation, was not so circumspect.

“They have got to appoint permanent directors, not have bureaucrats take an additional role. Very often it’s a bureaucrat who takes an additional role as the Director of an museum. That’s a problem. On an average, it’s mostly bureaucrats who probably stay at the most about six months. They need to understand what leadership is and working with a bureaucracy is,” Australia-based museologist and conservator Daniel, who has been working on restoration projects in India and in several other countries, told IANS separately.

Campbell also batted for enhanced participation of Indian museum directors in global discussions and networks.

In his role as a Director, Campbell has toured museums in Delhi, Agra Mumbai and Hyderabad among others. He saw the quality of collections and the need for conservation work.

“For me a critical issue is that we bring many conservators to The Met where we are fortunate to have very high quality facilities but sometimes what we lose sight of is the difficulties that conservators face on the ground in their home institutions,” the New York resident said.

Lauding India’s “wonderful collections” and the “wonderful buildings” they are very often housed in, the British scholar highlighted that as a a visitor, he is “sometimes struck by a contrast in the way some of the Indian museums present their collections”.

“I think there are three areas where there is room for work,” Campbell said, emphasising his comments were not meant as criticism.

“The areas are presentation, design of the presentation, the lighting of the presentation; the interpretation, the information that is given about the collection; and the third, how audiences are engaged by the facilities and activities,” he elaborated.

Campbell expressed faith in the potential of Indian museums to draw a “much larger tourist as well as local audience”.

“The big challenge for our generation is turning our institutions from analogue to digital institutions and The Met has put in a huge effort into getting our collections online. But the online information is not the substitute for the real thing,” he explained, adding he next plans to write a book.

Campbell steps down in June after eight years in the job during which the institution emerged as a worldwide digital leader. Having helmed the largest art museum in the US Campbell underscored the importance of museum leadership.

“Museum leadership is very important for the success of museums and the leader sets a strategy that will determine the museum’s success,” he said.

During his tenure, overall museum attendance grew by 40 per cent to a record seven million across The Met’s three sites.

Campbell said the museum managed to make that growth possible through a “combination of strategies”.

“… through our advertising and outreach, through the programmes (the exhibitions and activities) and by paying attention to what our audience needed, the signage and facilities, so that when the audience comes to The Met they have a good experience. Whether they are local or foreign tourists, they want to feel engaged,” he explained.

Established in 1870, the Met presents over 5,000 years of art from every corner of the world.

“Our collections have been developed over the last 147 years and we have a very active programme of exhibitions, research around the Indian collections, both in antiquities and all the way through contemporary. In aggregate its one of the largest collection of Indian art anywhere in the world,” Campbell pointed out.

(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at [email protected])

–IANS

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