Sunday, 8 March 2015

Iconoclasm in Glasgow

Basalt bust, Egyptian, circa 2000 BC </br> © CSG CIC
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.


  1. Dear Grumpy,

    While I agree with the sentiment of your post - museums' first responsibility is to hand over their collections in good nick for the next generation - I think it is a mistake to make this quite so personally a matter against William Docherty. I have never heard of him, but don't feel I can share your judgments. You haven't linked to his comment about the acceptability of destroying museum artefacts, nor do you quote him directly, so your readers really aren't in a position to assess your characterisation of his opinions. You've obviously had a look at his linked in profile, but couldn't anyone's CV-style statements be plucked off the page and made to look silly? Presumably he's judged that this is the kind of stuff that potential employers will want to read. He's essentially talking about how he enjoys organising sessions with, say, a family group, who would use museum objects to help them see bits of their own past lives as part of a greater history, which I'm sure is a useful and rewarding process for all concerned. I feel like you are dumping, from your position of great privilege, on this person who, from his linked in profile, seems to have been involved in Glasgow's museums for about a quarter of a century. Most people like that work for low wages and have a great deal of good about them.

    I think you should track this person down and offer him a right of reply. It could be rather interesting, you could do one of those email dialogues like they do (or did) in Prospect magazine, where you each go back and forth a few times.

    Best wishes

    1. Thanks Richard. I have a lot of sympathy with what you say, and I was ambivalent about using the LinkedIn quotations. In the end I decided to, because it is in the public domain and I think that no matter what their pay grade, curators do need to be held to account. I think our museums and their curators get too easy a ride, and what's happening at Glasgow Life deserves criticism.

      The remarks were made at a public talk, which was reported to me by a reliable source - but there's nothing to link to. I don't think it's right to call me privileged. I'm not connected with the art world at all, beyond writing a blog. Perhaps a better term is irresponsible - I don't have to worry about establishing friendships and professional networks. That gives me freedom, but may also mean that I can be too sharp - others must judge that.

      I did indeed contact him and invited him to reply, but got an out of office reply. I would certainly welcome a debate and happily publish his reply.

      Grateful as always for your considered response.


  2. No, absolutely do not contact that clammy worm, as Richard suggest. How can anyone have a "dialog" with someone who writes excremental prose like this:"Engaging communities in critical dialogue validating their right to 'have a voice' by determining content development" Critical? Seriously- critical to those "communities ,to the worm and his Glasgow ISIS? What a criminal misuse of art and public trust.

    1. I think Richard is right to distinguish criticism of the ideas and the person - see my response to him above. I'll make no compromise on criticism of the ideas, but would welcome debate with the curator in question.

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