Geoffrey Ward: Each museum tells a different story

TEXT:Sue Wang    DATE: 2018.11.16

Geoffrey Ward was interviewed by CAFA ART INFO

The Fitzwilliam Museum is the principal museum of the University of Cambridge. Its core purpose is to safeguard the collections, to make them accessible for study and enjoyment and to preserve them for future generations. The Fitzwilliam Museum owes its foundation to Richard, VIIth Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion. In 1816 he bequeathed to the University of Cambridge his works of art and library, together with funds to house them, to further "the Increase of Learning and other great Objects of that Noble Foundation". For nearly two centuries, the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collections and buildings have grown as a result of successive benefactions.

Geoffrey Ward, Acting Director of Fitzwilliam Museum, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of University of Cambridge, was invited to participate in the Art Museum Forum of International Art Education Conference organized by the Central Academy of Fine Arts. CAFA ART INFO took this opportunity to interview him.

Interviewee: Geoffrey Ward, Acting Director of Fitzwilliam Museum, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of University of Cambridge

Journalist: Bei Hu

Photography: Hu Sichen

Edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

CAFA ART INFO: Hello, Professor Geoffrey Ward! Nice to have you here. Is it your first time in China?

Geoffrey Ward: It’s my first time in Beijing. I’ve been to Shanghai and Nanjing earlier this year. And I went to Hong Kong once, years ago. But this is my first time in Beijing, my first time at CAFA.

CAFA ART INFO: What’s your impression of CAFA?

Geoffrey Ward: It’s wonderful, yes. I like the CAFA campus, which is quite intimate, which is good for students as they are not so dispersed. There are various facilities including lecture theaters and it is very good place to live in.

CAFA ART INFO: In what way do you think public Art Museums and University Art Museums could better connect with each other?

Geoffrey Ward: The University Art Museum is partly used for research. However, once that research is complete, it’s not entirely the property just of the museum that generated it, it should be available to other museums for other uses, because research is ultimately about shared knowledge. I think the University Art Museum is a particularly delicate topic. You have to show that you can do research in scholarship, but not become so absorbed in research or in scholarship, right? Because the exhibition will be dry, or the catalog will be too big and too full of footnotes. But on the other hand, they don’t want to be so intent on getting the public in, with blockbuster exhibitions, which is very dramatic. There’s no one depending on research, so they have to do two things at once. In a way, the task of a public museum is perhaps easier in that sense.

CAFA ART INFO: How college students could better participate in the museum exhibition and education?

Geoffrey Ward: I think college students, because they’re young in nature, they are enthusiastic. Therefore college students will make good applicants. I think it’s good to encounter young people. In the West, we often encounter quite old people in museums, because they’ve retired. So they pursue their hobbies, they’re interested in art, so they volunteer in the work in the museum. It is very good that they do that. Also, young people make very good applicants for art and museums and young people are perhaps likely to be more in tune with contemporary art than old people, so perhaps they can explain art better.

CAFA ART INFO: A lot of wonderful work has already been done at the museum in areas such as art education, what are you most excited about the future growth of art education?

Geoffrey Ward: The digital transition in advanced technology. We don’t actually have to go to museums to see pictures. You can see them on the laptop or on your phone. I know it’s not the same. It’s not the same complexity or experience. But it is still an encounter with the picture, even only as an introduction. And also information: years ago one had to go to a library, or to the museum to acquire information on art. That information can now be found on the Internet or website. So I think that the digital future is very exciting. We’re experimenting with this a little in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. We sometimes take objects from a museum, and we take them out to schools, we take them out to communities who don’t usually come to the museum. We do not only talk about them, but we also offer people the opportunity to hold them. Now, obviously, we’re not going to do that with a fragile item, or work which is very sensitive to light, but within reason, some art objects have a very good reason to encourage this. The sculpture, in fact, some sculpture is light, east to be touched. So the digital world is very well exciting. The digital world also takes you away from the artwork itself. Showing people the physical object and getting them to enjoy the art is a great balance towards digital transition.

CAFA ART INFO: What do you think is the most important thing in art education, fundamental teaching? What role do museums play in all this?

Geoffrey Ward: The different roles. It depends why the student wants to know more about the artwork because they can have completely different uses for educational purposes in works of art. It may be that you want to look at Western painters like Leonardo da Vinci because you are interested as a student in Leonardo da Vinci. So that’s your research. But you may be training to become a fine artist yourself. The image of the Mona Lisa which happens to be by da Vinci, may not be interesting in the fact it’s by da Vinci. You may be more interested in that image when turned upside down. So it depends on what we use this for, if this is used for study, in terms of the student gaining more and more knowledge, or is the use of art stimulus towards the production of art by the student, in which case it is a different mindset. Museums have different roles to play depending on what viewpoint you want, why has that person come to the museum? But I think it’s also good for students who are in a setting which contains a museum, like the campus here in CAFA to also go to other museums, because every museum is telling different stories, and presenting work in different ways. The artworks are subtly affected by the physical nature of the environment in which they’re mounted for our visitors. Work looks very different in a very old museum where when you walk, your footsteps echo or a new white cube where everything looks modern and new. It’s different if you’re in the museum where there’s a lot of emphasis on selling drinks, foods, shirts, scarves, or whether it’s a more traditional kind of museum. So I think if you’re an art student, you need to see art in a different way. You need to see different kinds of art all the time, bombard yourself with different stimuli. But you also need to be in different places to do it. It’s good to travel, but it’s also good to have a museum on campus, which is what CAFA has, which is great.

CAFA ART INFO: I know that you wrote fiction, how does your expertise in literature contribute to your work in university and the museum?

Geoffrey Ward: I do write fiction and sometimes experiences that I’ve had creep into my fiction of course, and thoughts that I have about painting, or about poetry, or about music, also creep into my fiction. So in my first novel, some of the characters are musicians, and they are American blues musicians, they actually exist. But in my book, they meet in the afterlife. They will die, and they will meet in the astral place. I can’t forget when I’m doing one kind of work, work for a museum that I’m also a novelist. I can’t forget what I’m writing in novels, but I also know things about museums and that I have a background in literature. So all of these areas leak into the other areas of your life and inform each other we can't live like a series of rooms that aren’t joining-up.