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Collections for all

January 24, 2013
Handling a real object, NHM

Handling a real object, NHM

One of my pet subjects is remembering why museums collect objects.

Although you may think it is obvious, attitudes to collecting and more importantly what museums should do with objects  is a big issue.  The Museum Association definition of a museum from 1998 is ‘… to enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment.  They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.”

Seems simple enough, but plenty of institutions are wary of letting the public too close to those objects.  They recognise that for collections to be inspiring and a source of learning and enjoyment people need to use more than just their visual senses, in particular feel and touch.  They get round this my creating handling or education collections.  These objects are often not part of the accessioned collection, and considered expendable, the “real” collections would be far too precious for public handling.

I find this approach problematical.  Dividing collections into classes (acccessioned and handling), creates a hierarchy of objects.  Not only is it messy, but it also it lends itself to creating confusion among the public.   If you go to a museum and get a chance to handle some real live objects, you would like to think you are handling “museum” objects, its part of the thrill of the authentic.  I have seen plenty of schools sessions were a class of children are told they are about to handle a museum object, and they handle the item reverently, knowing it is precious and valued.   I am not sure they would react in the same way if they were told the accessioned objects were far too sensitive for them to touch and they could only have education collections which were unaccessioned (and thus disposable).

I think this attitude is a hang up from the times when it was acceptable for museums to collect objects and then keep them as far away from the public as possible, occasionally putting them on display.  It also reflects a time when museum professionals were largely curatorial.  Today museums are expected to interact with visitors in a much more dynamic way, and museums now include a much more varied group of professionals including people with backgrounds in learning, community engagement, marketing, retail, design and so on.  Most of those people will be wanting to use the “real thing” i.e. accessioned objects, but in many cases their access will be limited and they will be given handling collections that are not part of the museum collection.

I feel there are ways of safeguarding objects and making them accessible at the same time and treating them all as museum collections.

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