On Monday, The Still Room Blog had a fun post about murder mysteries set in museums, and the dearth of deaths of collections managers and registrars because of their low profile. If no one knows you exist, how can you get killed off in fiction?
Well, folks, here’s how: turn a non-profit board loose in a room with the general figures that appear in an annual report, and ask them a ‘fictional’ question about cutting money from an NPO’s budget. Ask, “What program would you cut?” Be sure not to give them a list of programs or detailed financial information, but only the kind of broad-stroke, simplified information that is publicly available.
Guess what they’ll cut? They’ll cut the non-public functions of the museum program because it’s non-public. (I feel nauseated as I type those words, just as ill as I felt last night.) And after all, it’s reversible! They can always hire other curators, collections managers, photographers, registrars. Cataloging gets put on hold, so what? There are still all the displays up in the house museum–and that’s all it is, a house museum, not a real museum–so we can have those positions again if things improve. We just stop collecting objects, but that’s OK, because after all, we’re not a museum!
It’s enough to make a cat laugh, and a curator, collections manager, registrar, or photographer vomit.
It was an interesting choice, made primarily because the objects were perceived as having no constituents, and those who existed didn’t matter–what do we care about the experts at Yale or Winterthur, or the Met? What do we care about the curators at the regional museums? They’re the elite, and we’re not pandering to them.
I’m no Wendy Cooper or Morrie Heckscher (though I have met Mr. H and moved furniture with him in my museum, and my mother knew his father) but I suspect that the group I was with last night would let them go, too, in an “academic” exercise. After all, they could consult when needed–for a fee, of course, take it or leave it–and that would be a savings. See? Win-win.
Just to be clear, it was only an exercise last night, and nothing more. But it was highly instructive in the ways that boards function when they do not fully understand how museums work (they think the Director of Education does all the exhibits) and how important is it for collections managers, registrars, and digital imaging specialists/photographers and yes, even curators, to make clear and public what they do. Without those people, museums will not know what they have, where it is, who gave it to them, or what it looks like. They also will not know where, in other museums, there are related objects and make the connections between local, regional, and national collections.
Who else will tell you the stories of the objects, and how they relate to one another?
Who else will assemble the material, physical evidence of the past?
Who else will connect you to a real object, provide you with an authentic, meaningful experience?
I hope I don’t get to find out, because I think one of the board members once suggested Boy Scouts could catalog the collection.
Remember, it was only a exercise. Instructive, though, and urgent: behind the scenes workers need to raise their profile and explain what they do, and why it’s important. Cataloging librarians, this means you, too.