10 March 2021

Life in the museum

In August 2020—the year of the coronavirus—Vivian van Saaze, associate professor at FASoS, moved with her husband and daughter to London for a fellowship at the renowned Tate museum. There she faced the challenge of doing field research in a museum virtually empty of staff and visitors. “I had to think carefully about how to adapt my research methods to the situation.”

tate modern

The fellowship was part of the research project ‘Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum’, an initiative of Professor Pip Laurenson, head of Tate Collection Care Research and endowed professor at Maastricht University. “What’s special about Tate is that it has a strong research department that works closely with the museums’ other departments,” Van Saaze says. “Museum practice is viewed as a form of research: practice as research. That’s very different to the more typical art-historical research on collections. During my fellowship I examined this new research model. What are the assumptions and expectations, and how can academic methods contribute to its further development? Usually when I study museum practice, I take an ethnographic approach, observing people in their daily work. Now everything had to be done through Zoom and we could only talk about their activities and approach. I missed those hallway chats, but I was able to attend all the gatherings and meetings online.”

Changeable

“One of the aims of this three-year project is to reveal to the public the ‘life’ of artworks in the museum,” Van Saaze continues. “Museums are designed to preserve objects in their physical form and protect them from change. As a result, artworks are usually presented as stable and unchanging. But contemporary art—performance art, activist art, net art, digital art—challenges this understanding of objects as static. Changeability is inherent to artworks like these. We’re investigating how the museum can adapt to this type of work and what changes it necessitates. What’s special about this research project is that it was initiated by conservation, but because it involves case studies, there’s intensive collaboration with all departments: the curators, collection management, registrars, education, communication and archiving. Employees from different departments have been released to participate in the research and to initiate change processes from within. Not surprisingly, this isn’t always easy in an institution as large as Tate.”

Vivian van Saaze is an associate professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She is programme director of the English-language master’s in Arts and Heritage: Policy, Management and Education and the Dutch-language master’s Kunst, Cultuur en Erfgoed. She is also director of the Maastricht Centre for Arts and Culture, Conservation and Heritage (MACCH). The fellowship at Tate was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Procurement process

The moment you as a conservator or curator no longer see an artwork as a static object that you have to freeze and preserve, as it were, you also accept that an object changes within the museum and that the museum plays an important role in this. This also alters the role of the conservator. “Previously, the best conservator was an invisible one: he or she repaired whatever was wrong. Contemporary art calls for a more proactive attitude: how can such changeable art survive? Acquiring an artwork is often a long process involving cooperation with the artist, technicians, curators, conservators and so on. Say a museum is considering purchasing an activist work. You have to think very carefully about whether the institution will be seen as supporting the activist cause in question. But you also have to consider whether the institutionalisation of such a work silences it as a piece of activism. And will it retain its activist character 10 or 20 years from now?”  

London in lockdown

Van Saaze and her family lived in London for five months. Part of that period was spent in total lockdown; for the remainder, some things were possible, but it was not London as we know it. “I missed the spontaneity of life, especially visiting museums and galleries. There were times when museums were partially open—by reservation only—but many were already fully booked. And it was a shame not to be able to visit anyone or have anyone visit us. Your social life comes to a standstill. It was particularly difficult for our nine-year-old daughter. She really only had the school: a nice, small neighbourhood school where each class formed its own bubble. We did a lot of walking around the beautiful, impressively empty city, hitched a ride on a houseboat, biked and even fed squirrels. But by late December we were ready to return to Maastricht—especially our daughter.”

Practice as research

Van Saaze will continue her research for the project from Maastricht. “I want to do a few more interviews, but I can do those from Maastricht via Zoom. The project is part of a longstanding collaboration with Tate. It’d be nice if there were more opportunities for this kind of research in other museums too. In the past year, museums had fewer visitors, so they put less energy into constantly designing new exhibitions. The shift in focus may lead to more attention for existing collections, and more room for reflection from the inside out on the role of the museum. There’s a lot going on in the museum world at the moment: discussions on diversity and inclusivity, decolonisation processes, restitution issues, the problematisation of ​​ownership—the idea that museums appropriate objects, and so on. These are all big questions that have been around for some time, but now there’s greater urgency. Over the years, many academic staff in Dutch museums have been laid off. Maybe now’s the time for more research. That would be fantastic for our students in the Master in Arts and Heritage. They’re trained as reflexive practitioners, people who adopt a reflexive attitude with respect to their own practice. Which is exactly what they do at Tate: research in and on museum practice to enable institutional change.”

Previously, the best conservator was an invisible one: he or she repaired whatever was wrong. Contemporary art calls for a more proactive attitude: how can such changeable art survive?
By: Margot Krijnen (text), Ted Struwer (illustration), Joey Roberts (photography)