Change in Museum Collections: Realistic or Unrealistic?

Question MarkTimes are logistically difficult for museums at the moment, and priorities concerning their collections management and directly related programs are changing. So let me ask this, should we be realistic or unrealistic about what we want to do with museum collections?

My idea for this blog came from a recent short conversation I had on twitter during the #MuseumHour weekly chat. I tweeted ‘any point in building collections and conserving if we aren’t going to engage the public? Putting stuff in boxes = unproductive’. Well… character limit is a real pain in the you-know-where. Another tweeter pointed out to me that this statement was unrealistic, and that conservation and collecting are important- it is impossible for museums to have everything on display.

This is an important topic that deserves attention. Anyone who has read any museological literature in the past fifteen years will recognize that this statement I made is rooted in the new and changing aspirations that museums are starting to develop, especially in the UK. I am not going to go into the history of elitism in museums at this time, but public engagement and increased transparency are some of my interests; they are ways that museums have used to help change their public image- museums need to look outward, not inward.

I would like to expand on my tweet, because this is an area I am very much interested in. During my MLitt course in Museum Studies, I had a professor who would constantly say, “Okay. You have the objects. What are you going to do with them?” This gets me all riled up- what are we going to do with them?! If we are going to invest time and resources in conserving and building museum collections, then we need to display and create new ways for the public to access them. It would be sad to have a beautifully conserved item that is never displayed. Are museums building collections with intent, or just collecting for the sake of collecting? Again- we need to ask ourselves these questions.

Now I understand the importance of being realistic. Of course museums cannot have all of their objects on display at once. The university I attended has a massive recognized collection that they can only be displayed in two rooms that change over exhibitions twice a year. I also am considerate of museum budgets, along with the monetary and time investment that public engagement and education programs cost. But on the other hand, it is amazing to see how many museums have words such as ‘engagement, education, access, facilitation, and explore’ in their mission statements, when they are the lowest priorities on the totem pole. We know that this step is important, and is the key to giving the objects a new sense of purpose in peoples lives again. Let’s take this step!

Due to the pending budget cuts of museums in the UK, people in subfields have been rather sensitive as of lately. Its an ‘every man for himself’ mentality, as everyone has been trying to prove that their work is the most important at museums. Especially at bigger institutions that have more money to lose and a plethora of programs to chose from to give the axe. I may have a personal preference and interest in museum education, but I would never attempt to state that it is any more important than another subfield such as conservation. It is a shame that museums cannot accomplish all of their goals, and are forced to chose between what they think is most or least important.

So…should we be realistic or unrealistic in these difficult situations? I will say that being realistic is important- we cannot accomplish everything, or make every visitor who walks through the door happy. That is reality. As for the changing mentalities and new methodologies, I would personally like to stay what some call unrealistic. I have seen some amazing things in my short six years in university, that I am sure people twenty years ago would have called unrealistic. I read a fascinating piece on comparing the Pixar film Wall-E to archaeology, that is very much out of the box while still maintaining an appropriate academic tone. Looking at things differently like this is going to help our fields to continue to change and move forward- we cannot remain static.

I would like to quote Graham Black who wrote, “Museums need to change, or die.” A bit dramatic, but I love an impactful statement. It is true. We need to continue to challenge how we do things, and why we are doing things. So why are we conserving objects, and why are we buying new ones? Are we going to share these collections with others, or fill up a storage room? We all know that there are times when it feels like putting an object back into storage makes you feel like you are Frodo, dropping the ring into Mount Doom- it may pass into legend, and never be seen again! Maybe this needs to change.

Please comment below and tell me what YOU think museums should be doing with their collections to challenge themselves! Do you know any museums that are doing a good job, or any that need some change in their lives?

Peace and long life.

Featured image of storage room in the Larco Museum (Lima, Peru)

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