Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Plea for Private Museums

Disclaimer: I have only a passing familiarity with this subject. If you are a professional in this field, you're welcome to add to our understanding by posting in the Comments. I have had the great fortune and honor of visiting several important, private model horse, sci-fi, art, and exotic animal collections, from coast to coast. I put in a year at a public zoological institution as a volunteer keeper, and saw exactly how it limits what staff and collections can do, fix, edit, manage, and become.


Why do we insist on bringing up this wish, this fantasy that seems so unattainable, as we sit in our cars, on the drive to model horse shows? This soft, gray-edged possibility, as we nurse our cuppa tea or coffee, before the day's work snaps back reality?

Because the art we love is fragile, yet it will outlive us.

Because some collectors have no heirs, or if we have them, they have no interest in learning how to properly handle and/or disperse our collections. Perhaps geographical distance or lack of resources makes a careful dispersal implausible. Relatives may have, in all seriousness, mentioned boxes to the dump, or a Craigslist blow-out.

Because what we collect is not quite acknowledged as Fine Art, and not quite Folk Art. In many cases, the vintage ceramic animals are products of industry, not private art studios.

Because toy museums are not appropriate settings for these delicate beasts. They have different display and restoration needs, not just a different audience.

I live near a major tourism center, and I see private museums open up to the public, flourish, then fade and close, with regularity. Some are free, but attached to businesses; others charge parking and amusement-park-priced admission. Some evolved from being an "industry secret" by-invitation-only, to full-fledged tourist destinations.

It's easy to confuse the terms "public" and "private". Someone may say, "Of course my museum will be open to the public!" That is not what public means. Public means, put very simply, that a true public institution with a board of directors control and enhance the museum. Essentially, it can't be run by one person. Imagine if the world's institutions were run by one person each, what an opportunity for corruption and "missing" treasures! A Board must handle all decisions for the public museum. Curation lists can be assembled by the curator(s), and brought before the board, but a curator can't just thin the herd without the Board's approval.

A public museum is subject to certain federal laws, since it ultimately gets at least partial public funding. Beyond this, regional and worldwide museum organizations set requirements and inspections to verify it is worthy of membership, affiliation, or accreditation. On top of that sundae of bureaucracy, there are loans of items for temporary exhibits, regional laws about loaned works, and all the hoops to jump through with their agents.

Few folks know that public institutions can purchase exhibits from the private sector.
This animal was captive-bred by a private keeper, and sold to the public Shedd Aquarium (photo on exhibit).
Just like the rest of us, public institution staff search online to source additions to their collections.

Private means, owned by someone, an individual or corporation, in the private sector. The decisions regarding operating hours, whether or not it is ever open to the actual public, and how it displays (and restores, disperses) its collection is within their own purview. The exceptions to this may be the private museum's compliance with federal and state laws regarding endangered species, live animal welfare, weapons, and even hazardous artifacts (can't let the visitors be exposed to radioactive stuff!). I'm sure there are more exceptions, but the laws are applicable to all citizens permitted to possess such items. If you don't have a permit for it, your private museum doesn't, either. Just putting the word "museum" on something doesn't give one carte blanche.

An impressive display in the Skeleton Museum in Orlando, FL.
This is a shining example of a private for-profit museum done right.
In my opinion, the displays are of superior quality to the public museums in DC. 
The subject happens to be both of scientific and general interest.

"How hard can it be, if essentially uneducated entrepreneurs can do this? It's not like any of these are attached to institutions!"

Turns out, it's both simple and difficult to bop out with a new, privately-owned museum. There needs to be a perfect blend of resources: time, climate-controlled space, traffic to support it, parking, storage, people who will work, showmanship, curation, carpentry, maintenance, paperwork, promotion, and security. 

The simplicity emerges as one key factor: not being a public institution. Standards and federal regulations for a public museum are very stringent, and from what I have read, are not viable for operating a model horse museum. The number one reason being that the foundation of model horse collecting is based on mass-production, and that means OF duplicates will need to be curated with an eye to preserve storage space for future items. Generally speaking, museums receive bequests of selections or entire collections. If three bequests/donations have 200 duplicate OFs between them, a curator must analyze which are the best examples to keep in the museum's collection, even if they are not on display rotation. The extra pieces must then be dispersed. Dispersal stays in the control of the private museum, not normally true of the public institution. There are exceptions, where living donors offer their items with the caveat that the museum cannot disperse any part or whole, in perpetuity. Because of the limits of space, this is a very unattractive deal to museums.

For the most part, serious museums do not consider collectible ceramic-production animals to be even "folk art". They are not considered institution material, unless a singular mass-produced item has a connection to a person or event of broad historical interest (ie, this item was flown on a space mission, or owned by a President). Even so, famous historical figures owned a lot of stuff. They have to draw the line, somewhere.

For example, at one time, the International Museum of the Horse, on the Kentucky Horse Park grounds, had an impressive display of Kinstler wood carvings (wooden model horses). Now a handful are scattered over a few exhibits. The decisions made by equine specialist museums do not necessarily reflect what model horse collectors might consider important. If this is how historic, valuable Kinstlers (arguably, worthy folk art) are managed at a horse museum, imagine how far out of a "normal" museum's storage we'd see any donated custom, or mass-produced plastic or china? Ironically, if they were carousel horses, they'd have a better shot at eventual display.

A couple collectors have mentioned donating to The Smithsonian, partly because they have broad "Americana" collections. Arguably, California Pottery examples should be considered worthy of the term. The trouble is, our field of interest is not considered academically important enough- not now, nor to an imagined future generation- and museums are already chock-a-block with items that do not have museum quality or academic merit:
Until fairly recently, there were few concerns about the size of collections or the practical aspects of holding them. To get a few items of value, collecting units often accepted collections that contained many unwanted items. The prevailing assumption appears to have been that governments and philanthropy would always provide the necessary resources, and that collections could be culled later. Throughout the 20th century, many museums tried to acquire as much as possible in their subject areas. The collections that evolved were often large and lacking in cohesion, and sometimes contained materials that were not of museum quality.

- Smithsonian Acquisitions, p.142

This same document puts the acquisition of mass-produced items in very blunt terms:

... Cultural history and art collecting units continue to struggle with questions about the acquisition of contemporary materials. One nettlesome issue for cultural history units is the sheer volume of potential acquisitions in a world of mass-produced, disposable, and constantly changing consumer items. 

- p.146

The Smith document cites a survey responder who said that instead of accepting 10% of offered donations, the new number is about 1%. If a donor specifies that the "unsuitable" parts of the donation cannot be disposed of by the institution, the institution refuses the entire donation. 

These days, an institution needs to cherry-pick the most important (what is historic to us and to the future- if the curator ascribes to gambling on what future generations will find interesting) from the ocean of donations.

Not that anyone wants to hear this part, but private museums have the same need to edit. They, unlike public institutions, typically reserve the right to edit or dispose of materials that do not enhance the collection, unless some stronger document is drawn up between individuals. Quantity suffocates many a public museum's storage. If even the public institutions are running out of room, imagine what the pressures are for private, with considerably fewer storage resources? Furthermore, there are no tax write-offs for donating to a private museum. Donations to a public museum gain the donor a tax credit.

Private usually gets no public (government) funding, so a broad fundraising plan is necessary. This may includes dinners, events, and the "disposal" (selling) of unsuitable or duplicate donated items. I say "usually" because there is a trend of late, where private collectors have utilized tax benefits. Private can purposefully locate "fixer-upper" collections, refurbish or restore them in-house, and then break up and sell at a profit. It can be for personal profit, or the owner might roll it back in, to keep the museum going.

Private museums have less government and interior oversight. This doesn't mean they are immune to the whims of individual curators, who can influence whole Boards to their tastes. It does mean that the government standards for institutions' climate control, storage, restoration methods, and loan procedures are entirely optional to the private museum.

The flip side of that coin is, the private museum must educate itself in lighting, display, conservation, and media weaknesses. For instance, changes in humidity can affect earthenware ceramics. Climate control keeps the levels of humidity stable, delaying the onset or degree of glaze crackle and averting bisque degeneration. Therefore, a private museum must train itself, and staff, in the display needs of its media. 

What will happen to the vintage mixed-media customs, the bedrock of the model horse art movement, 
without proper conservation?
Custom by D. Buckles, c. 1989; my first custom purchase.

Will the oils or acids in the display unit literally eat up the models in them? Will models adhere to their packing, to each other, to the display itself, and suffer damage as a result? Can intrinsic materials decay be halted? Have the correct conservator-quality gloves, tools, storage media been sourced, budgeted, and kept pristine? Have the owner/staff been trained in how to use these tools? All but the most elite private museums will not have access to the same staff documents and training resources that the public museums have, and continue to build upon. I get a spontaneous full-body cringe when I see documentaries or television shows where artifacts are kept in beautiful conservation folders and boxes, and then the staff touch these with bare hands. Acid and oils, they spread. It's what they do.

The private museum must come up with funding for its own insurance and overhead. If the private museum allows the public to come view it on-site, liability insurance can be a million-dollar minimum for a modest, one-story building. That's just guest injury liability- then add fire insurance, flood insurance, and on and on! Maintaining a large building at ideal climate controls, year round, is more costly than you'd guess! Add to that, correct exhibition-grade lighting, bulbs, and electricity to power those lights and climate control... and the maintenance, parking, outdoor landscaping if the museum has gardens...

Photographic records are often overlooked by the private museum entrepreneur. 
It can be quite an investment in equipment and bulbs made for the purpose. 
It's equally important to record items on loan to the museum, for both condition on arrival, and insurance.

Then, there is the delicate dance with items on loan for temporary exhibits. Some private museums entirely forego loans and temporary exhibits. These are usually the ones that do not generate income by charging admission, so there is no incentive for them to have a fresh "draw" every couple months. Those that do accept loans of items for display must familiarize themselves with the legal and insurance requirements. Yes. More, separate insurance.

A private museum must set up its own training and internship program. No existing program is in place to feed them in, it must start from scratch.

Youth programming, including class trips, requires careful thought. A private art or collectibles museum would be wise to screen for groups that would have respect and interest in their exhibits, such as school art clubs, or art magnet schools. A private museum will have to increase its staff for days when class trips are scheduled. Public institutions are generally staffed to handle groups, or at least have seasonal hires to suit increased traffic.

As the private model horse museum grows, people will begin to ask about on-site competitions and other events. Even if space will not allow on-site events, some thought must be given to fundraising dinners and auctions, benefit shows...

What does our collecting hobby have going for it? Lots of things.

We have the benefit of experience. Model horse collectors have made strides, they have learned from errors, and they have led by example. There have been attempts to partner with existing institutions, and other private museum facilities; there have been purpose-built buildings that were true private museums. Each approached the problem with their own insight, their own resources, their own strength and ambition. As long as no central, universal model horse museum exists, there will always be individual collectors starting up their own museum efforts.

All private museums begin with someone saying, 
"This is worth preserving and displaying thoughtfully."

A handful of model horse collectors do not allow "the public" (meaning strangers) on-site, but instead maintain an online museum through their photographic web sites. The advantages of the web site as a public, free museum are low-cost, fairly low-risk (provided addresses are shielded and secure), and a curious draw for new and experienced collectors. The internet is open 24/7, unlike most museums. There will always be an interest in the web site as a public display of collections, as long as there is an internet. Even public institutions have seen the benefit of this alternative. I have assembled a small list of online model horse museums, see References, below.

I can't help but realize that the very building I own and work in would make an excellent private model horse museum. It is already a closed-to-the-public, invitation-only museum for my husband's and my collections. There are already dedicated offices, a showroom, clean room, main gallery, and handicap-accessible bathroom, in addition to other purpose-built rooms with industrial-grade utilities. Knowing myself, and how I prefer to spend my energy on ceramics, I would have a heavy lean to showcase ceramic model horses. Such a specialization lends itself to related ceramics workshops, education, and the power of hands-on learning. That also rules out the enormous storage and cabinets needed to have a huge representation of plastics and other model media. If one considers the longevity of ceramics over human history, it makes sense, to me, to specialize.

The carpentry, displays, organization, and restoration are things I am fine with. Finding people to intern, slog through boxes, wouldn't be impossible. Certainly, it is far more appealing to try than to sit idle, and watch the history be lost around us. 

If I build it, will you come?


The Smithsonian Institution. "Acquisition and Disposal of Collections."

Web museums:

The Black Horse Ranch Museum Tour. I visited the museum's physical site when it was located in California. The collection is now in dispersal, but this excellent online museum resource is still available.

The Hagen-Renaker On-Line Museum, curated by Ed and Sheri Alcorn.

The Model Horse Gallery, curated by Gail Berg.