Everyone in the museums sector, from local historical societies to the large national funded institutions, all have the same problem. We are faced today with an odd shaped challenge.
People want to give us ‘stuff,’ all sorts of stuff. It comes in all shapes and sizes.
Victor lawn mowers are left on a museum’s doorstep. Grandma’s willow china is lovingly wrapped and gifted to historical societies. Paintings and prints of yesterday’s heroes are stacked row upon row in council town halls.
In the last 200 years we have lived through an age of unprecedented access to consumer objects. Never before has it been so easy for every person and every family to acquire. And acquire we have. An estimated 80 billion pieces of clothing are made every year world wide. Australians spend about $18 billion every Christmas. We have the biggest houses in the world, 10% bigger than the USA.
And those houses are full. We are swimming in stuff.
Here in the museums sector, that stuff will make its way to us. I’ve been on the receiving end as I’m sure many others have too. The little old lady is standing in front of me with her dresses and towels from her birthplace across the sea. The photographer, the collector, the history buff... surely, you must want it? It must mean something, they say.
But what do I do with it? Should it be catalogued, digitialised or exhibited? All of it? Just part of it? Maybe none of it?
How do we decide? Sorting through this excess of stuff raises tricky questions wrapped in emotion. Objects and our attachment to them is an emotive subject. To dig our way out of this age of excess we must ask new questions:
Which objects are curiosities?
Which are messengers of nostalgia?
Which are significant and deserve our limited resources?
And we have limited resources. We all know there’s only so much money to go around, museums have always had tight budgets. But it is more than that, our natural resources at a global level are limited. Our budget allocation from the earth is running out.
So which of these do we give our limited resources? Curiosity, nostalgia or significance.
Objects of curiosity are the collections of intrigue and wonder, thousands of glass bottles, thousands of vintage dresses, rows upon rows of model T-Fords. The visitor looks at them and is intrigued, they may have a love/hate relationship with it depending on whether they love dresses or cars.
Curiosity has its place but lets not pretend it is significance.
Objects of nostalgia are collections, which are kept because we have a yearning for something that we feel is lost: our younger days, our ancestors perhaps, a time when our town was something.
Nostalgia may well have its place too, but should it have our limited resources?
So we turn to significance. As a curator, I’ve been trained in significance and how to judge it. I’ve written significance assessments for all sorts of objects and collections. We curators use the word significance like we know what it means. Museums can go object by object through our collections, 1000, 10,000, 1 million items. Object by object to assess its significance against the criteria we have written. We can get lost in the detail. But if we are interested in the future sustainability of our collections we have to ask a very different question.
Significance has to be taken back up to the bigger picture.
What are we giving the generations who come after us? We can not give them collections that are just curiosities or may have nostalgia; to us. How are we to know what they will find curious? And nostalgia, well, nostalgia is a transient, flighty beast, here today, gone tomorrow.
To chart our way through this age of excess, we must come back to significance. Our limited resources must be given to those items with real significance.
The question needs to be more:
In 250 years time, will our descendants look at what we’ve kept and thank us?
Or will they look at what we’ve kept and curse us for the burden we have given them?