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Interview: Giles Waterfield

PUBLISHED: 08:54 05 March 2010 | UPDATED: 08:35 02 July 2010

Female Figure Lying On A Bed (c.1931) by Elizabeth Brown, part of The Artist's Studio exhibition.

Female Figure Lying On A Bed (c.1931) by Elizabeth Brown, part of The Artist's Studio exhibition.

Pippa Jane Wielgos

Giles Waterfield is one of the UK's leading authorities on museums and curator of current Sainbury's Centre exhibition The Artist's Studio. Ahead of a talk in Norwich, he tells us about the exhibition, art and the challenges facing museums.

Pippa Jane Wielgos

Giles Waterfield is one of the UK's leading authorities on museums, and an independent curator and writer. His many roles include being director of Royal Collection Studies and an associate lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

His portfolio of academic publications include Palaces of Art, Art for the People and Soane and Death, and he delivered the Paul Mellon Lectures, on regional museums in Victorian Britain, in London and New York in 2007.

As an author his bestselling novels include The Hound in the Left Hand Corner. He is currently writing a fourth, set in Berlin and London.

He recently curated the exhibition The Artist's Studio for Compton Verney, which is currently at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the UEA. And he will back in Norwich to visit the Sainsbury's Centre on March 9 for a special event where he will discuss the ideas behind the exhibition.

t How did your avid curiosity in museums and curating start?

I have enjoyed visiting museums from since a tot when my mother took to me museums in Geneva where we lived. I only became aware of the idea of curating as an undergraduate but I do remember one moment in an underground corridor aged about 24 at the V&A thinking that all I want to do is work in a museum. I do find it interesting from all sorts of points of view.

t Were your family connected to art?

My uncle was a painter and he studied at the Slade School and Ruskin and he was a garden designer and my brother is a very brilliant gardener too but not my father or mother. My mother was an authoress but not-published. She was from a generation when a lot of women were not properly educated and never really had proper jobs.

t What are the influences on your work?

I am not particularly good or interested in at writing books about individual artists - I don't find that particularly sympathetic. My interest is the history of museums. So I became really interested in how museums were established and why and how they displayed their work and who went etc - so it's a kind of frame of art and rather like The Artist's Studio, the framing of the work of art rather than the work of art itself is the work I like to write about.

t What do you think are the most pressing concerns facing museums today?

Cash on a negative side. We have 12 very good years in this country with a lot of money from the lottery. I think there has been a very positive move towards increasing the educational role of museums and opening them up to the public, to rethink in categories so we are not so quite European-centric and to re-think against about display and how this can be done in a most creative and dynamic way. All of these things remain issues and one of the issues is expertise and creativity and how to train young curators.

t How are museums adapting to their new challenges?

We have some good museum directors in the national museums as the National Gallery and the V&A and they are all well led. Of course, rather than having to accept handouts from the government, they are now providing 50-60pc of income themselves and this allows them to be in effect more resilient. In the States, crippled by lack of money - adapt by economising. In Germany and France, they are more self-advising and looked after. We are ahead of a lot of museums in the quality and style of exhibitions we do and what we provide in terms of visitor experience.

t What are the main questions museums should consider?

Audiences and the attraction of new contemporary audiences - and they don't abandon these. Finally, museums are about their collections and what they can offer but without expertise or knowledge the collections die so preserving the traditional values and bringing them up to date and short term financial problems can survive - but to be honest museums are in a very lively state.

t What should people take away with them from The Artist's Studio?

One of the central ideas is that all studios are garrets is not really relevant. They have functioned and do function in a whole variety of ways and that they have been token hospitality, schools and academies or shops or whatever they may be and not just solitary garrets and I want to suggest the continuity of these approaches and they way in which some types are more important than others and in addition to that I interested in the way do or do not reflect the personalities of the artists and I think that emerges from the exhibition and also to think about the way in which studios are mirrors of the artists character and work - some are and some aren't'.

t In your role as advisor to the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which other important artworks should be saved for the nation?

The NHMF was set up to save countryside, historic buildings, works of art and other elements of the national heritage in memory of those who have died at war. The demands on the NHMF are no less great than ever, and it is particularly regrettable that at this time when Britain is again engaged in warfare the opportunity to save the archives, pictures and other works from the past is potentially thrown away.

t What are the funniest elements of museum curatorship?

I remember travelling across the Atlantic as a courier as an escort of pictures from New York to Paris and there were 20 works by Antoine Watteau in the plane and there were also two Arab stallions being accompanied by a groom. There we were in this Air France plane just the two of us and the crew.

t An Evening with Giles Waterfield will be held at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art on March 9, 6pm-8pm, £8 (£5.50 cons), 01603 593199, www.scva.org.uk

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