Christopher Frayling at the Museums Association Conference, Liverpool 2008 – the historical and the contemporary.

Liverpool Docks
Liverpool Docks

Sandy Nairn called it an ‘historical moment’ which makes it sound very grand but in one way it was. The chairman of the Arts Council addressing the Museums Association conference for the first time is a bit of a shock for an event whose focus is largely inwards and whose speakers are usually on the same side of the fence. But this was a refreshing change and overdue.

The vision to mix the ‘historical and the contemporary’ (see Arts Council Turning Point strategy) for me is the bleeding obvious. Christopher Frayling puts it very nicely as to view the past through the prism of the present. Something I think most people actually do in their everyday life anyway. When we look back, reflect, remember, investigate it is through the eyes and body of who we are in the ‘now’. That ‘now’ is always shifting, much as a lens has to refocus as you move further away from its subject.

The context of his speech was the much-discussed McMasters report (see my other session notes from the same event) and the commitment from both the Arts Council and MLA to work together more closely.

Much of his speech focussed on some beautiful examples of commissions and interventions that contemporary artists have made into museum and heritage spaces. Stuff like the New Visions programme at National Maritime Museum. Sarah Lucus at Freud Museum, the Science Museums “Listening Post, Carl Clerkin’s “ Short Crawlies” in Derby, or Susie MacMurray at Pallant House.

He drew a comparison between artists and curators calling them both creatures of curiosity. Both brilliant at looking not just seeing, both understanding visual drama and narrative and the powerful effect of the plinth and the frame.

He talked about what he sees as their shared interests and how it results in different approaches and values towards the same things e.g. a curator may handle a thing in white gloves or not at all, but an artist will wants to hold it and feel it..

Obviously this is a generalisation but usefully within the comparison is a real recognition of the comparative value of both, a notion that some may feel is new for the Arts Council who have in the past focussed more on the artist as the only central figure in any work.

Mostly his comments focused on the good stuff that curators have learned from artists and the ways in which artists have brought new interpretations to old stuff. He said “By introducing arts into the equation, the meaning of objects doesn’t end when they enter the museum”. Sadly, there was little reflection on how the meaning of art is influenced by the historic or by the curator. I would have liked him to have gone further into how artists can learn from curators or the museum space. What perhaps you might call looking at the present through the prism of the past perhaps?