There’s No Answer To That


At the ‘Exhibitions, Research, Teaching’ symposium, BGC, 8th November 2013

My first week in the United States ended with the ‘Exhibitions, Teaching, Research’ symposium, part of the BGC’s twentieth anniversary programme of events.  The structure of the day had been carefully crafted to reflect the specialisms that have come to define the Bard: museum practice, research in the decorative arts and research-informed teaching.  The line-up of speakers was impressive (to say the very least), bringing together some key thinkers and practitioners from North America and Europe.  Stanford, Columbia, the Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA and the Rijksmuseum were just some of the auspicious seats of learning represented on the programme.

The speakers all were engaging, prepossessing, charismatic and provided not only high level commentary on current scholarly debates but also a masterclass in the art of oration.  They each delivered beautiful, thoughtful and inspirational rhetoric on their chosen subject.  Director of Collections at the Rijksmuseum, Taco Dibbits, talked about the refurbishment – rebuilding, even – of this museum and the ‘playful simplicity’ that informed its rebranding.  Appealing to my graphical instincts, he described the Institution’s ambition for its national collection to be (literally) on every Dutch breakfast table with its printed milk carton project.  What a clever idea.  And Harriet Zuckerman, Vice President of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, gave a perfectly pitched, rousing, defence of ‘basic research’ that questioned the trend for metrics as a signifier of quality, the scramble towards ‘applied research’ and a favouring of the sciences over humanities in grant capture terms.  I couldn’t help but map her observations onto – or rather, against – the ‘impact agenda’ back home in England.  Continuing the theme, I felt that the quote of the day came from Joachim Nettelbeck from the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin.  As a professional administrator (of great repute), he explained how the purpose of research in the Humanities may often, unfairly, be dismissed.  He suggested that, for some, its relevance to the real world and its application may not be immediately obvious or easily defined.  To illustrate this point he ventured ‘what use is research?’ answering his own question with the razor-sharp riposte ‘what use is a newborn baby?’  Couldn’t have put it better myself.