The challenge of objects

I don’t know about you, but I usually prefer heritage sites to museums for a visit.  Partially this may be a result of poor interpretation encountered once too often at museums.   Labels listing cataloguing information do very little for me and, I expect, many other visitors.  Such ‘interpretation’ fails to make that elusive connection, and yet I wonder how much interpretation could achieve in the first place when perhaps the underlying concept –taking objects out of their context and isolate them from their use – is flawed to begin with.

The argument is not new.  ‘Museumification’ springs to mind, which argues that putting an object of daily use into a museum alters its status and, sometimes artificially, turns it into ‘heritage’.  Of course, I am one of those who see heritage as a social process and as such this point doesn’t apply.  What I do believe, however, is that ‘museumification’ renders an object impotent.  Deprived of its application to human life it becomes just that – dead matter.

And yet, the two colleagues with whom I recently unwrapped objects for our own exhibition felt entirely differently.  While I wrinkled my nose at what I proceeded to call quite blasphemously ‘the stench of time’, their eyes lit up in appreciation of the objects’ age and material integrity.  I jumped at the opportunity to find out more about such conservationist enthusiasm.  I thought that perhaps something had been eluding me that provided meaning for them where I only saw materiality.  Was age, authenticity, integrity really all they cared about?

I was astonished to find that their answer was primarily, yes.  They did feel that objects also served as a springboard for people’s memories but they proceeded to defend these objects vehemently against any human use and interference.  When I brought up the practice of many post-colonial museums who are giving back indigenous objects to their source communities, many of whom proceed to destroy them as part of their heritage practice, their views were even more surprising to me.  One of my colleagues argued that they wouldn’t give the objects back because they deserved a priori ‘protection’, while the other denied the claim of ownership altogether.  The crux of the latter argument was that the passage of time gave these objects universal value, which for me placed the criteria of universality in the World Heritage List into a completely, and unsettling new light.

I can’t say whether the many museum curators here and elsewhere share my colleagues’ views.  However, interpretation I encounter in many museums does make me wonder whether similar foci on material age and integrity, as opposed to human use, are responsible for the overwhelming lack of meaningful connections between objects and visitors.  I would never dismiss the benefit of preserving and displaying objects for their age and integrity in museums, however, I still remain firm in my conviction that the actual worth of these objects lies in their use by humans.   If nothing else, museums and the interpretation they provide should aim at making this use as clear as possible, for example by allowing visitors to handle replicas in order to get a feel for the practice that centred on these objects.   I believe that it is in this (mediated) interaction that regular folk like myself will find some appreciation of age and integrity.  I’m reminded of the research that I did at Newgrange, where age and setting were the values that visitors associated with the site after having walked it (not after having read about it in the exhibition!).

Either way, it was very interesting to have this discussion with people who were just on the opposite end from me on this issue.  Perhaps one day someone will do some research on how many curators share my colleagues’ convictions, and more importantly, how many visitors do so.  The results should be enlightening.

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