Panel Discussion: The Registrar in the 21st Century – Chair: Aisha Burtenshaw (UKRG, United Kingdom)

Aisha Burtenshaw chaired a panel looking at how our profession has changed since the first European Registrars Conference in 1998. Panellists considered how the role differs across countries, how we can work together and what we can expect for the role in the future.

The panel included Registrars at difference stages in their careers across the UK, US and Europe: Freda Matassa from Matassa-Toffolo, Linda Pacifici from Palazzo Strozzi, Brandi Pomfret from Echelon Arts Management, David Chan from Wellcome Collection, and myself, Nadine Loach from Leeds Museums and Galleries.

The discussion began by looking at what has changed in the last 20 years. One of the key points was that the role of the Registrar is more widely understood and recognised as a vital part of the management and development of collections. At the same time, Registrars are required to have a deeper understanding of more complex legal issues as the industry and surrounding markets have developed. The Institute of Art and Law courses were recommended to provide a good grounding.

The panel also looked at other new challenges such as working with contemporary art and new media, meaning Registrars must be more flexible and more creative in their problem-solving and planning than ever. Overall, the role is broader than ever, with Registrars providing support to colleagues across all manner of collections issues.

How did the panel become Registrars? Most did not make a conscious decision to be a Registrar, particularly with an awareness of the role and what it entails not being communicated as well as, for example, Curators. Some came from collections management, curatorial and exhibitions roles. Although, the understanding of the role of the Registrar has improved in recent years, with the visibility of the role is developing with sector-related courses and traineeships. The importance of on the job training was highlighted as an important part of gaining an understanding of the role, and provide practical experience that ensures individuals are confident and prepared to deal with the myriad of issues Registrars deal with on a day to day basis.

Sustainability has been a buzzword for many years now, but was it on the agenda when the panel first started out in the sector? The Arts Council require funded institutions in the UK to report on sustainability – covering environmental, financial and social sustainability. Importantly, the panel felt they had to negotiate more than ever now – to do more with less, so in effect are embedding sustainability into their practices. The panel agreed that environmental sustainability is one of the main challenges for the next 10 years – but that it is equally an opportunity as well as a challenge.

What advice did the panel give for new Registrars? Interact and build networks, share experiences to develop your own skills, and work across a variety of institutions to gain a good understanding of how different places work and how you can work with your colleagues across the sector. Being a Registrar is about supporting people and projects, and this requires patience and significant people skills to develop trust. Finally the panel agreed that Registrars are multi-talented and diplomatic and should be more active in cultural matters as a result.

Written by panel member Nadine Loach, Leeds Museums and Galleries