In Part One, I posed a pretty big question, “How would you make a museum from scratch?” and dove right in to discussing audiences. It is such a big topic, I decided to take the plunge and hope that some of you would be willing to go along, and lo! you did! A number of you though, quite rightly said, “Whoa! Ed! Back off, man! Your assumptions don’t make sense to me.” So before I swim out any further over my head, a little more context. This post could probably be called Part One, the Less Sketchy Version, rather than Part Two, but so be it…
There are collections, and there are collections
One of my reasons for picking an archaeological collection as the basis for this experiment is that the processes that result in the creation of scientific collections and art collections are very different and I wanted to be able to explore that. Archaeology is a destructive practice. To study an archaeological site, you have to destroy it. When you’re done, you can’t put it all back so another archaeologist can come in re-excavate that site to test your hypothesis. It’s a one shot affair, so there is tremendous pressure to preserve as much as possible, since that will likely be the only surviving remains of that site. So while you might think of an archeological collection as only the objects or artifacts collected during an excavation or survey, a collection actually comprises many other classes of materials with scientific value. These would include biofacts (pollen, seeds, plant and animal remains) soil samples, radiocarbon and other dating samples, and more.
So to Gretchen’s question in the first post expressing amazement at the size of the collection, when your collection includes these other classes of material, 200,000 objects isn’t all that big. For my thesis research, I was looking at 17th and 18th century shipwreck sites, and the ammunition totals alone from those sites would be in the tens to hundreds of thousands of objects. Granted, they are small and indistinguishable objects, but there you go. From looking at these collections of indistinguishable, individually uninteresting objects, one could make inferences about the size and character of the firearms present on these ships, even though the weapons themselves were largely disintegrated. Would a general public audience ever want to come see 88,000 lead musket balls? Probably not, unless you did something very artistic with them. Do they have value to another audience? Absolutely. The same applies to many natural history collections. The public might not find much interest in forty seven study skins of the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), while an ornithologist might need a larger sample to answer his or her question.
To (hopefully) address Linda’s confusion over the image of stacks of boxes, and others’ concerns over size, let’s say our collection of stuff comprises 200,000 archaeological objects. Of these, over half are going to be Ziplock bags and boxes full of stuff (soil, greebly bits, and otherwise undistinguished cultural remains like potsherds and the ammunition from my earlier example). Of the remaining objects that the layperson might recognize as “artifacts”, the total is probably in the low thousands. To use Koven’s triage metaphor, the ones that are worthy of being part of the global conversation probably only number in the high hundreds, maybe the low thousands.
The distinction between a museum and a collection
I love the comments from Part One probing at the distinction between whether this pile of stuff is a museum or a collection, because they aren’t the same thing. Amanda asked some excellent focusing questions which I think it might be helpful to address individually to help us move along:
“Is this a truly unique/valuable collection, and if so, to whom – scholars, people of a particular interest group, people of a particular area, people of a particular cultural heritage?”
I want to think expansively and really tease out a lot of issues, so let’s yes to this question. Your relevant experts have declared the collection “important” both to a local public audience through what it says about their area, and to a potentially broader audience because of historical importance. It is interesting to archaeologists and other specialists for reasons they will explain to you in great detail, which you may or may not fully understand, though you appreciate them.
“Will this collection achieve greater value on its own, as a niche display, or will it add value to an encyclopaedic collection at another institution?”
Now here’s an interesting question! Does it make sense to start yet another museum, with all the concomitant costs involved, or would it be better to send it to an existing museum? Rainey Tisdale asked much the same question via Twitter and it’s an excellent fundamental question to answer definitively. I imagine many of us have encountered institutions that were founded with the best of intentions, which nonetheless couldn’t construct a viable, long-term value proposition to their intended audience(s). To me, this question also goes along with some of Koven’s triage questions. Is this worth making a museum out of? If not, maybe you have a roving collection that makes occasional appearances at schools or public events. Maybe you have a storefront museum. Maybe your “museum” exists primarily online, and only occasionally manifests itself in a physical sense. I want to come back to all thee scenarios, as well as Jasper’s idea of literally taking the collection out on the street and seeing what people resonate with.
Again, to move the experiment along, I’m going to say yes to this question. You’ve done your due diligence and looked around, talked to lots of colleagues at other museums and collections, and arrived at the conclusion that your pile of stuff could reach its highest potential to be part of the global conversation in it’s own context, rather than being added to an existing museum’s collection.
“Is this collection sexy/applicable enough to really support a ‘broader mission’ beyond ‘learn about cool stuff’?”
A fascinating question, requiring some real soul-searching! This goes along with the previous question about achieving value. How do we use collections of stuff to create value of some sort? Suse also got at this point with her question about whether we were making a museum from scratch, or making a collection awesome and useful to its audiences. Even if all of the conditions above are answered in the affirmative, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have a museum. We might have an archive, or an educational institution devoted to teaching history through this archaeological lens. What makes a collection a museum?
To me, the answer to Amanda’s question comes down to curation. Is there an obvious connection between a collection of discrete objects and the global conversation we are always having; “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?” For me, the best museums let me walk around inside those questions and walk out with a different understanding than when I entered. If the connection can’t be made obviously, and quickly, then the answer to the “broader mission” question would be “No.” and this exercise would turn into something different, though equally fascinating.
As the final brick in the foundation, let’s say that this collection has such obvious connections to big issues that it’s obvious to you that you could construct an experience that would be a clear benefit to a public audience, a more diffuse audience interested in history, and a specialist audience. This experience would be based on a subset of the collection of objects that is interesting and discrete enough that you feel they need their own manifestation in the world as a museum. The rest of the collection would need to be stored and cared for its scientific value, but is probably never going to excite much public interest.
How’s that for a better framework to talk about missions?