Everyone’s a photographer nowadays. That’s the challenge facing Tatyana Franck, director of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne.
In the age of Instagram, Pinterest and Flickr, we have instant access to a free, online archive of photography that would have astonished the pioneers of the industry little more than a century ago. Based in an 18th century manor house on the shores of Lake Geneva, the Musée de l’Elysée has to balance the protection of its valuable photography collection with the desire to open up to a more demanding audience.
The answers provided by Tatyana Franck, the museum’s director, are a mix of innovation, creating a global presence by means of travelling and exchange exhibitions, and highlighting the premium nature of the offering. “We need to ensure the presence of the museum at a regional, national and international level through long-term partnerships with key institutions,” Franck explains. “This means maintaining a very high level of quality in terms of exhibitions, publications, events and collections management – it also means being innovative in the landscape of major cultural institutions around the world.”
Strategically, the challenges facing Tatyana Franck and the Musée de l’Elysée are similar for any museum or gallery wanting to keep up-to-date in an environment that is, by its very nature, conservative. Preservation is the reason the museum exists in the first place, but keeping your offering fresh and appealing is essential. How to deal with this dichotomy? “It’s a good question, because you have to juggle between conservation and communication. We aim to educate, to conserve and to showcase the museum’s collections and archives.”
A pressing issue is that the museum has far more images than it can show at any one time. It has a unique collection of over 100,000 prints, as well as many more negative and contact sheets (the postage-stamp sized images that photographers develop, before choosing on the final image to develop as a print).
Focusing on the future
Part of the response to this is to employ technology to make the museum more accessible to visitors. “I’m going to launch a five-year digitisation programme which will scan images of the works we have. The museum will then be able to progressively give access to a large amount of images to the public, via the website or other online platforms,” says Franck.
It’s not uncommon for large galleries to have more art than they can display and by rotating your display collection, you address the problem of needing to generate repeat visits; in effect, every year there can be “new” pieces for visitors to look at. Tatyana Franck, however, has grander plans for the Musée de l’Elysée. “The museum will be moving in a few years’ time to a completely new building which the team and I have just identified various needs for, especially in terms of showing and giving access to the collection.”
The new space will be custom-built, enabling Tatyana to programme much larger-scale exhibitions than are currently possible in a building that, however beautiful, was never designed as a museum. It will also be close to Lausanne’s other museums; all curators know the benefits of clustering attractions in this way. Cities like Amsterdam and Vienna promote certain areas as the “museum quarter”, knowing that people who come for one attraction will also visit nearby ones.
The new museum is planned to open in 2020. In the meantime, Tatyana Franck’s focus is on travelling exhibitions – both exporting samples of the museum’s collection around the world, and bringing world-class quality exhibitions to Lausanne. Selecting, agreeing and safely transporting valuable and fragile photographs round the world is clearly a major logistical challenge.
“You’ve got to negotiate and project manage with different business cultures,” Franck says. “You’ve got to consider your financial interest versus strategic interest. And according to the type of exhibition, you’ve got to weigh the advantages of a standardised project management against the desire for a personalised way of doing things. Once more, there’s the key issue of the conservation of artworks versus wanting them to gain maximum exposure.”
Along the way, there are a number of significant stakeholders, who all have very different views on what an exhibition is for -- the artists, the collaborating venues, the service providers and the museum staff. There’s a significant risk of conflicting priorities between these groups. The museum, a non-profit making business, also has regional and national government support as well as private sponsors, so their conditions need to be factored in too.
Not only is there the need to be diplomatic across these spheres, which range from the highly creative to the hard economic, but Tatyana Franck also needs to bring the whole project together with timescales that often have their start and end points finalised many months in advance. She credits her EMBA at London Business School in enabling her to achieve this complex and difficult task. “It was always my dream job to be a director of a museum of this size and reputation,” she says, “but I needed the MBA because I quickly realised that being a museum director is not only about expertise in the subject; you also need to be an excellent manager. I didn’t have all of the experience I needed, such as being able to negotiate contracts and loans. The teachers really opened my vision and mind. “ She name checks Professor Richard Jolly’s leadership skills module as being particularly inspiring – “because a passion such as this can be niche and I wanted a more global vision”.
Of course, it doesn’t harm to have a star attraction at your museum, and one of the Musée de l’Elysée’s highlights is that the complete photographic archive of Charlie Chaplin is deposited there. Consisting of vintage prints and negatives, the archive documents Chaplin’s entire career; behind-the-scenes photos were taken for each of his films by a team of photographers. Held privately by the star’s family for many years, they are now entrusted to the museum for cinephiles to explore.
Utilising the technology
Attendance figures currently hover around the 60,000 a year mark, plus almost 240,000 online visitors worldwide. Tatyana Franck wants to double these figures over the next five years. But with technology changing so rapidly, and the nature of photography itself undergoing such change, it’s hard to be confident about what the landscape will be like in five years’ time. The professional reportage photographer, for example, may well be an extinct species by then. Nowadays, when a major event happens, there’s always someone on the scene with a high-quality camera to capture the image. The days of Magnum photographers like Robert Capa, represented by a collection of prints at the museum, are perhaps already becoming history; which is where the preservation remit of the museum becomes even more important.
As well as archiving the past, it’s part of the museum’s brief to identify, support and promote young artists; both internationally and at home in Switzerland. “This is really important to us, to support the young generation in the long term to produce their work. Many photographers have been discovered by us and we’re still working with them perhaps ten years later.”
A current example is an exhibition where the museum has contacted photography degree courses around the world, asking for a selection of their best students. “It’ll feature film and installations as well as traditional photo displays. It’s going to travel all round the world over the next few years.” As well as unusual types of exhibition, the use of technology is innovative too. “It’s too expensive for the budget to transport all this work in crates. So we’ve decided to create a digital kit for countries such as China where they will have the ability to print the image locally.”
This is an unusual step to take and the Musée de l’Elysée is pioneering new ways of reaching audiences here. “It’s exploring the medium in ways that have been around for a while, but not utilised because of the traditional nature that museums tend to have.”
What are the long-term plans for the museum, aside from the move into the new building? “A focus on marketing,” says Franck. “I have a ten-year plan as well as a five-year plan. I think it’s important to have a long-term view and not rush into decisions, and to do that you need to think ahead and you need to think big. Because of the sums of money involved it’s not uncommon to plan that far ahead – it should be important for any company to think that far ahead!” The future will be photographed.