|Picture: Glasgow Life|
Last week a museum curator in Glasgow said that if five ancient Egyptian effigies are destroyed when they're sent on an outreach tour for children to play with it won't matter because they have more of the dusty old things. The curator, William Docherty, works for Glasgow Life, which is the body that was responsible for the work that was completely destroyed by a faulty humidification plant recently. It is also responsible for the Burrell Collection, which is about to be rented out on a world tour to raise money. Docherty has no known links with ISIS.
Docherty is talking about objects that have survived literally thousands of years, and which have been selected for the permanent collection of a major museum. He is not only sanguine about the loss of five Egyptian effigies each year; putting them at risk of damage is a point of pride. They can congratulate themselves on their bravery in loaning objects despite the risks involved, because they seem to think art and history has no value beyond the uses that they, the curators, make of them.
Docherty's LinkedIn profile is revealing. He says that he is "passionate about connecting people through exciting museum experiences which enrich lives. Engaging communities in critical dialogue validating their right to 'have a voice' by determining content development". Nothing about art. And actually it's not really about audiences either. It's about putting the work of the curator at the centre. The choice of words is meaningful; he does not talk about the right to free speech (a real right, enshrining freedom to speak out and freedom to hear ideas unfiltered), but the 'right to have a voice' (which is a bullshit right to join a facilitated workshop and be patronised by a civil servant).
I don't think Docherty even understands the ideas he espouses. He says that "Participants are given agency to co-create their own narratives which reflect new insight from personal lived experience". Agency isn't given; it is taken. Agency is not a gift bestowed upon is, it is inherent in our humanity. But again Docherty elevates his own role, assuming that agency is something that he can provide. And note that they are not creating narratives; they are co-creating narratives. Again it is Docherty's role that is key. This isn't really about validating community voices. It's about validating William Docherty.
Glasgow has done some fine work refurbishing old galleries and winning funding and support for its museums. But its globally important collections are at risk of being reduced to mere tools for community outreach, and commodities that can be rented out to fund the salaries of the social workers in charge. That's a degrading fate to museums that were once the pride of a great city. But for worse for posterity is that Docherty's gang will cheerfully facilitate their physical destruction in pursuit of their trivial mission.
Updated 13/3. My original correspondent writes:Docherty's remarks were not picked up from thin air. I was at the lecture and 'reported' them to Michael. The lecture was given at the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle For Sovereignty and Independence in Skopje, Macedonia on the 6th of March 2015.
A few tempestuous days are behind me, so I can't quote Mr. Docherty word for word, but his statement went something like this: The museum has 150 ancient Egyptian artifacts, effigies. If five are destroyed, it is not a big deal, the museum has more. It is not the end of the world.
What I could gather from the lecture is that this was not a decision made by Mr Docherty, but rather that this is the philosophy of the museum (Glasgow Life) which he apparently is enthusiastically supporting. It was a semi crowded room and couldn't not see his face, but the expression of the translator (the lecture was in English and the organizers provided simultaneous translation) mirrored my own, it was one of shock.
The problem here isn't that one individual in a museum values interaction over the preservation of the artefacts in his care, but rather that this has become official museum policy. There were a number of images during the lecture but I will leave it to you to try to imagine a five year old handling a 2000 year old artifact (fortunately, only one of 150 in the museums collection).
One final note, one of the images Mr Docherty showed in his lecture was of a youth of perhaps 15 handling a claymore. The sword was almost as big as he was. The photo was taken in another museum 'managed' (?) by Glasgow Life. He was obviously having loads of fun. Who wouldn't? You went to a museum and somebody just handed you a CLAYMORE. I know I would start screaming FREEDOM, FREEDOM instantly. The thing is... the sword was a replica.