Thoughts on Museum Success V: Survival and Persistence

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A group of children looks at a sculpture in an art museum

Originally published in the Ackland’s Member E-Newsletter of 23 December 2014, this is the fifth and final in a series of ruminations on how museums measure success.

Dear Ackland Members,

I write this just as the days are beginning to get longer again and the New Year is in sight — a good moment to think about survival and persistence, the theme of this last reflection on how to think about the success of art museums. The other installments on this topic are now all available on this blog.

Survival can, in itself, be a measure of success for an art museum, for two reasons.

Firstly, survival over long periods cannot be achieved without flexibility and adaptation. The Ackland can look back on almost six decades of evolution, mostly sure and steady, but with some moments of exciting transformation and reinvention. Institutions, like organisms, can only thrive this way. On the one hand, they can respond by reacting creatively to new challenges and opportunities; on the other hand, they can be imaginatively active, generating new approaches and redefining some part of the cultural landscape. The Ackland has successfully endured, and over those years has accumulated strengths and potentialities that bode enormously well for the future. Will that future be one of further steady evolution? Or one of a radical rethinking? With the search for a new Ackland director now underway, with the University beginning to articulate a new vision and a powerful strategic plan, with new thinking about art museums and their publics increasingly prevalent, it is hard to know which direction will emerge as dominant. But I am fully confident that the Ackland has the institutional will and ambition to succeed either way. Its survival into the future will continue to be a marker of success.

My second reason for affirming that survival is success has simply to do with the audiences for the art we hold in trust. Committed as we are to preserving our collection for as long as humanly possible, we have our future audiences as much in mind as our present one. In a way, a decision about our success must be indefinitely deferred, as there is always the next generation to serve. The works of art in our care deserve to be enjoyed and interpreted by any number of students and visitors to come. If we do not build and maintain an institution strong enough to preserve our collection so that it can be activated for these future generations, we will have failed.

All of you, too, are part of this dynamic continuum. Ackland members in the past and future are joined in this commitment to maximize the power and effectiveness of our collection across time. We at the Ackland thank all of you, the present Members, for the important work you do in sustaining our success, however it is defined. We look forward to a great coming season, and many beyond.

With warm best wishes of the season,

signature of Peter
Peter Nisbet

Ackland Art Museum Chief Curator and Interim Director