Museum collections and the “rhetoric gap”

Posted on April 29, 2012

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There are a couple of questions that have started nagging at me when I look at museum websites, and particularly when I look at online collections. With the American Association of Museums annual meeting on in the States this week, it seemed like a good time to start asking them.

Are museum collections actually as important as we often say they are? I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone in a museum argue that the most important thing about the museum is its collection – and why wouldn’t they? Each museum’s collection is unique. It is here that museums can differentiate themselves. A local art museum can collect works of national and local importance, and use each to speak of its place in a community. A history museum can define its very purpose by those objects that it has acquired.

Even more than this, as Steven E. Weil points out in his excellent book Rethinking the Museum, the justification makes “a kind of strategic sense to stress what it is that is most distinctive about museums – that they acquire and care for collections.” (p29.) In doing so, museums craft out a niche for themselves.

In Managing Things – Crafting a Collections Policy from the AAM’s Museum News, John Simmons writes:

It is clear that what distinguishes the museum from other educational, scientific, and aesthetic organizations is its relationship with its collections. “Museums exist,” writes Morris Museum Director Steven H. Miller, “because of an assumption that physical objects have value.” In Museums, Objects and Collections, Susan M. Pearce writes, “The point of collections and museums . . . revolves around the possession of ‘real things’ and . . . essentially this is what gives museums their unique role.”

But when I look at the message I get from museums on the Internet, the collection rarely sits front and centre. Many institutions still don’t have their collections online, and although I realise there are often both financial and time constraints, this just reinforces my sense that the collection has fallen down the priority list.

When even a major collecting institution such as the Met – whom have clearly invested a lot of time, thought and money into their online collection, and who were just awarded MW2012 Best of the Web for Research/Online Collections – does not obviously feature their collection on the front page of their website except in the navigation bar, it does not reinforce the message that the collection is what is essential and unique to the museum.

I know that we don’t really know who or what online collections are for, but maybe the Internet exposes the fact that we don’t actually know why our collections would be valuable to anyone for reasons other than the ones we provide in our existing displays and scholarship.

As regular readers would know, I firmly believe the Internet is actually the perfect vehicle for making museum collections more useful and more valuable, by ensuring that the collection can be found, used and reconnected to the ever-deepening well of online information. We might be able to ensure that the ideas anchored by our collections are be able to be put to worthwhile use externally to the museum, as well as within it. We are only just beginning to imagine how and why the Internet will be useful for the production of new knowledge and new memories, but it seems to me that there is richness to be found here.

Still, we contradict ourselves when we speak of the importance of our collections, and then act as though our programming is the centre of our existence, as is often the case online. Certainly, programming is easier to quantify and market. Our audiences know what it means to look online for events and changing exhibitions. It’s something they understand. But it’s also something we understand and know how to talk to.

Weil continues (p.29.), writing (emphasis mine):

The difficulty is that somewhere along the line too many of us – and here I must include myself – have too frequently misapprehended what has been a strategy to be the truth. We have too often taken what is a necessary condition to the work of museums – the existence of carefully-acquired, well-documented and well-cared-for collections – and treated that necessary condition as though it were a sufficient condition. In developing justifications for the public support of museums, we too have forgotten that their ultimate importance must lie not in their ability to acquire and care for objects – important as that may be – but in their ability to take such objects and put them to some worthwhile use. In our failure to recognize this, we run the danger of trivializing both our institutions and ourselves.

It seems to me that the Internet is exposing the fact that the rhetoric about the importance of collections to museums is not necessarily matched by actions that support that narrative.

Obviously each individual institution is different. Some institutions do emphasize the importance of their collections on- and offline, while others no-doubt place greater emphasis on other things in their missions. Non-collecting institutions are surely exempt from this issue (are they the institutions most honest with themselves about the reasons for their existence?). But what does this say about us as a field, that our rhetoric does not necessarily match our actions. And if we are lying to ourselves, should we change our actions to match our words, and actually find ways to put the collection front-and-centre online, or do we alter the stories we tell ourselves?

What do you think? Is the Internet exposing an internal inconsistency between what we say and what we do in museums? And if so, is it our rhetoric that should change, or our actions?