A curator of prints at a major American gallery once compared art preservation to the Titanic sinking in that “some people get in the life boat, some don’t”. Whilst there is a more democratic approach to the preservation of artistic works in the 21st century than compared to even forty years ago, this change has brought the debate full circle. Where once intellectuals battled in backrooms over departmental funding for their latest acquisition, increasingly in a user pays/user dictates arts environment are we once again facing a similar predicament?
Since the 1970’s there has been a change in the way institutions view preservation. At this time museums were debating their then current role as “storehouses” for artefacts. Collections were considered mainly for academic purposes , the public was allowed access to select parts of collections deemed worthy by curators. Even in those halcyon days of museumship it was predicted that the era of museums being solely the domain of academics was at an end. This was to prove in some respects a good cultural move for many traditional museums. Cultural stewardship had in many instances a departmental bias developing an ad hoc approach to preservation. Based on department head interests rather than an institutional strategy , items that were not covered by specific disciplines were frequently left uncatalogued in store rooms. In the 1980’s Thatcher’s Britain did force cultural institutions to develop unified preservation and display policies. As visitor numbers dictated government funding, what institutions had in their dusty repositories became increasingly important as did their preservation.
It could be argued that the worldwide shift in power away from academics to public accessibility in the 1980’s was a good result for preservation; however, it is a double edged sword. The choice of what items to save is a delicate balancing act. Not all items worthy of preservation are palatable to all the public. The destruction of a Banksy in Melbourne in 2013 highlighted the fragility of the preservation process. Viewed by some as graffiti, valued at potentially $50,000 by others and unintentionally destroyed by a builder. The third of a handful of rare works by Banksy to be destroyed in Australia, illustrates that even the public has the same difficulty in discerning what cultural property should be preserved. Perhaps the old guard were right to hold on to their departmental ideals. In those halcyon days of the 20th century they realised better than most, that not everything can be preserved and that what is saved has to be fought for.
The ongoing alignment of cultural institutions with commercial enterprise is an important fact of arts life. Preserving, maintaining and rejuvenating collections does not come without a price tag. The renowned institution of the BBC has begun utilising the economics of consumer demand to help conserve its collections. In 2012 they began the process of making available their entire archive available online via a “user pays” basis. In this way programs that are not deemed economic for a wide scale DVD release are still available to the public. This is in sharp contrast to the BBC of the 1970’s which routinely ‘junked’ or taped over programs that it deemed of no value. The bootlegs of these programs featuring the Beatles or Dr who are now in high demand from financially well-endowed private collectors. The public culture based in accessibility during the 1980’s and 90’s has moved up a gear. This is the era of the intergenerational user. A whole new stakeholder, whose rights are still yet to be defined, and yes they are very powerful. The rise of consumer awareness by cultural institutions has created a new form of preservation program, one dictated not by what academics feel illustrates the human condition, but by what the public wants to see. Despite the PR reassurance, the risk of prioritising the preservation of artefacts that keep the turnstiles moving rather than a holistic story is very real. Arts institutions need to be savvy in their thinking. There is nothing wrong in responding to public demand, but institutions still need to be able offer the element of surprise in their answer.