Museums are places to forget

Sometimes, museums are places of forgetting, not remembering.

Steven Lubar
Apr 30, 2017 · 9 min read

First, two poems on objects in museums.

Objects, Keats claims, are better historians than we are. They hold truths. They tell stories. They capture history, forever.

Auden calls this into question in his “Objects”:

Auden reminds us that objects are complicated things. Their meaning is hard to police, their edges hard to discern. Things change. There is loss.

This photo essay is inspired by the Auden poem. Part 1: Remembering to Forget. Sometimes we remember—museumify — to forget history and context. Part 2: Forgetting to Remember. Museums don’t always preserve either objects or information about them as well as they should.

(My thanks to Professor Diane O’Donoghue for the opportunity to explore this topic in a talk to her class, Brown University’s AMST 2630, “Public Amnesias and Their Discontents: Theories and Practices of Remembering and Forgetting.” The titles of the two parts are her phrases.)


Part 1: Remembering to forget

Sometimes, we put things in a museum to take them out of the world.

One reason to museumify things — move them into museums — when we want to forget them. It’s a way of making of point of not remembering them anymore. We remember them in order to forget them.

Politics

“In short, the Davis statue has been moved from a commemorative context on campus to an educational one, where it will be accessible for viewing, study, and discussion. As the home of one of the nation’s largest historical collections related to the South, the Civil War, and slavery, the Briscoe Center is well situated to preserve the Davis statue and to place it within its broader history.” —Don Carleton, the Center’s director

“Just putting it in a box won’t settle a controversy that has gone on…. We are the institution to resolve this. And this is a solution to resolve the problem as best we can.” — Relic Room director Allen Robertson

Religion

When something’s put in a museum, it loses part of its meaning. Religious artifacts become art.

The museum effect turns all objects into works of art. It heightens our ability to apprehend objects that were made with the ideology of the museum effect in mind, but it can obscure or change the meaning of objects taken out of context and into the museum.” — Svetlana Alpers, “The museum as a way of seeing”

Napoleon gathered religious art from churches and monasteries gathered into the new Museé des Monuments Français. There it was displayed in chronological order. It became part of history, not part of religious ceremony.

“A process of appropriation was therefore required, which would discredit the proscribed associations of artefacts, while replacing them with others contributing to the new ideology” — Alexandra Stara, The Museum of French Monuments 1795–1816: “‘”Killing Art to Make History”

Goebbels ordered the confiscation of art deemed modern, degenerate, or subversive from museums and art collections and displayed them in an exhibit of “degenerate art.” The Nazis also ordered the collection of 200,000 Jewish artifacts for a museum to to be called The Museum of an Extinct Race. They used the museum as a tool of suppression.

Museums are secular institutions, and curators debate how much they should tell that religious story. George Goldner, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, argues that “We have an obligation to be objectively insensitive…it is our job to present works of art with fidelity to the purpose and historical context and aesthetic context in which it was made.”

The Temple of Dendur is no longer used as a temple.

Conquest and Colonialism

The relics of war and colonial conquest are cleansed by their presence in a museum. Their history is forgotten. Napoleon demanded that the states he conquered turn over their art. It’s in the Louvre now, French property, not Egyptian of Italian… It’s part of the history of art, not the history of conquest.

Colonial powers grab art and artifacts from their colonies for their museums. It sheds its former context and meaning and becomes part of the story of imperial power.

From Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” on the Elgin marbles:

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

At the Pitt Rivers Museum, artifacts were organized by function. Museumifying them removed their original cultural context.

African artifacts as pure form, in the Ward Collection, in Paris. Their meaning and use are forgotten.


Part 2: Forgetting to Remember

And sometimes, the things we put into museums are forgotten—lost, deaccessioned, decayed. We forget that we are supposed to remember them. That can happen intentionally or unintentionally. Archaeologists use the word “taphonomy” to describe the processes of decay. We might call the processes by which collections disappear from museums, museum taphonomy.

Of the 174 paintings that were part of the Metropolitan Museum’s first purchase in 1871, only 60 are in the collection now. Only 19 are on view today.

Of the first collection at the Smithsonian — the George Perkins Marsh’s collection of 1335 European engravings and 300 art books, purchased 1849 —only perhaps 400 are still there. Some were sent to the Corcoran, some to Library of Congress, and some were destroyed in an 1865 fire.

Transfer

Museums sometimes transfer their collections to other museums where they might find better use. In the nineteenth century, the Smithsonian encouraged new museums with “museum starter kits.” It also traded materials with other museums.

The US Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) collected some 40 tons of specimens: 4000 ethnographic item, 2000 birds, and 50,000 plants. These came to the Smithsonian in 1858. Jane Walsh, at the National Museum of Natural History, devoted years to tracking down the ethnographic collections . About two-thirds are still there. The rest were distributed, mostly to other museums.

By the end of 1871, the Smithsonian had distributed 308,080 duplicate specimens.

Large-scale transfers are rarer today. But they still happen.

Deaccession

“There is hardly a museum without stuff that should be thrown away . . . and certain museums would be improved if half of their accumulations were shoveled onto the dump.” –Director of the American Association of Museums, 1939

Museums hold collections to serve their mission. When collections no longer serve that purpose, it’s appropriate to deaccession them.

Sometimes, museums sell off collections items to acquire new ones. Perhaps a better example is available. Or perhaps the museum decides that a new area of collecting serves its audiences better.

In 2005 the Columbus Museum of Art deaccessioned a Thomas Eakins to acquire the Philip and Suzanne Schiller Collection of American Social Commentary Art, “a group of relatively unknown artists whose compositions had difficult, and to many in the museum community, unappealing content.” The Schiller Collection, the museum argued, “the Schiller Collection ”helped create one of the most significant bodies of art concerned with social commentary in the country.”

Sometimes, society decides that it’s not longer ethical for museums to hold certain kinds of artifacts. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) required that museums receiving federal funding return Native American human remains and some cultural objects, including funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to appropriate tribes. In NAGPRA’s first twenty-four years, museums returned

  • the remains of 50,518 individuals (it has been estimated that there are some half-million Native American remains in American museums)
  • over 1.3 million associated funerary objects
  • almost 5,000 sacred objects
  • over 8,000 objects of cultural patrimony.

Museums also deaccession objects when they lose their physical integrity, their identity, or their authenticity, and when they can no longer be properly stored, preserved, and used.

Things decay

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly;
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.

— Robinson Jeffers, “To the Stonecutters”

Some things decay on their own. “Inherent Vice: the tendency in physical objects to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of the components of which they are made.”

Some things decay because they’re not taken care of: extremes of temperature, humidity, careless handling.

And some things are the victims or war or attack.

Information vanishes

Museum registrars use the phrase “found in collections” to indicate art or artifacts discovered in collections storerooms about which no information survives. There are so many ways in which that can happen:

Artifacts without information might well be candidates for deaccessioning. Or, rarely, for inspiring poetry. Shelley was inspired by the Egyptian collections of the British Museum:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias”

And museums themselves can disappear

When museums no longer serve a useful purpose it’s hard to argue for their support. The Jenks Museum of Brown University didn’t keep up with the needs of the biology professors responsible for it:

The reasonableness of spending money for the dusting and rearranging of the miscellaneous curios of a university junk shop for the gratification of a few straggling sightseers is, we readily admit, not obvious [but it is] easily possible to select and arrange anatomical and zoological material which would be of very great service in teaching.

And so the museum collections were disposed of:


Part 2! More reflections on museums and absence in a new essay, “Exhibiting Absence,” here.

A brief advertisement: more on all of these topics can be found in my new book, Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.

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