Letting Stuff Live

What museums do with stuff is strangely artificial.  We are given or buy a thing. We fill in paperwork, make an entry on a database and – usually – stick it in a store. Its natural life as an object which interacted with people – the reason for it being interesting in the first place – often ends at that point.  Sometimes we even restore it to an earlier date, erasing much of that life.

If collections are what make museums different, what exactly are we doing with them here?  Are we killing them as surely as tossing them in a skip, or generously granting them a twilight existence in a  box, or a glass case at best?

I am guessing that the first answer would be that we are saving these things – for ourselves, for the future, to remember, to try to understand the past.  So it’s better that they don’t disappear into that skip, but is there another way of thinking about what museums, and therefore curators, should do with all this stuff?

The reason that museums exist and have collections at their core is because they are the tangible things which have survived or can be gathered and shared. In the earliest museums, usually the ‘treasure houses’ of private individuals, the objects were intended to be seen through the prism of the collector, or through the commissioner of their creation.

As collections came to be seen as ways of understanding and ordering the world around them, the role of the maker also became important.  Particularly in ‘high art’, this new emphasis on the artist gave further validation to the owner of the objects.  The maker/patron/owner approach to objects will be familiar to anyone who has visited a National Trust property.  Municipal museums placed less emphasis on personal ownership, though authorship and condition lent status to a town or a city.

Condition was always a preoccupation, whether it was attaching a Renaissance arm to a Roman statue, or replacing the missing wooden slices in a Tunbridge ware box.  Furniture was repaired and dolls given new frocks.  The museum seemed to be trying to replicate the object at its birth, rather than giving any idea of the life it had lived since then.  Interestingly, in the antiques trade, ‘patina’ is often valued for conveying age and therefore the prized authenticity.

Both maker and condition became more difficult to sustain with the rise of mass manufacture. Authorship had to be sought in manufacturers and designers, such as a Singer sewing machine or a Clarice Cliff plate. But condition was usually only restored if the object had a high financial or cultural value, such as a steam train or a classic car. The steam train is a good example of the original condition paradox, with often a majority of new parts to reach the desired ‘original’ working state.

The entry of the new discipline of social history into museums in the 1960’s saw an improvement. Many museums now collected across a wider social spectrum, with a new emphasis on the material culture of ‘ordinary people’, then on specific cultural groups, such as black or women’s history.

Most significant was what Cathy Ross has described as the move from ‘product to process’, the shift in focus from what museums collect to how they collect it. This ranged from simply writing all the information a donor could remember on an entry form, to targeted collecting and oral history projects.  The emphasis was now on engaging people in the story telling, not just handing over the stuff.

So how can we ensure that museums share the life of an object, rather than just its birth? Again, museums are surely about people, but told through this tangible material that remains.  The stories of all the people who interacted with an object can only be understood through representing the object at all stages of its life.

Process – how museums collect, record, share and contextualise – is the practical basis of this, but museums also need to consider the fullness of an object’s life.  The story of many costumes in museum collections, for instance, does not end with their private ownership, but goes on to theatrical or school use.  And that steam train had new lives of rusting in a shed, being restored by volunteers and running on a heritage line, all equally important parts of its story.

So how do we ensure that objects don’t die when they enter the museum?  Many do have  a new life, handled by visitors, travelling to exhibitions or provoking memories, and that needs to be recorded and shared. But others sit on a shelf being saved.  Maybe many of those shouldn’t be in a museum at all.  Perhaps the objects would have a healthier life with a local society, a school or family ownership. The museum can record these ‘associated collections’, advise on their care and call them in for sharing;  but the curator becomes an enabler rather than a hoarder, and the museum a catalyst more than a storage facility.

The image is from the Cast Courts at the V&A, another way of letting stuff live. Caroline Ellis was director of the Tunbridge Wells Museum and has a special interest in how we live with stuff.