Museums need collections and connections

First, a cautionary tale: Prof. John Whipple Potter Jenks founded Brown University’s museum of natural history, ethnography and “curiosities” in 1876. Jenks was an enthusiastic collector (he acquired some 50,000 items by 1890) a fine teacher, and a diligent fund-raiser. When he died in 1893, his tombstone read: “This museum the fruit of his labor will be his abiding monument.” It was not to be. The museum closed soon after. In 1943, 82 truckloads of collections were taken to the university dump.

The Jenks Museum at Brown University. Courtesy Brown University Archives

Was Jenks a good curator?

In the short term, yes: he was knowledgeable, dedicated to his museum, a great collector and brilliant at convincing others to donate their collections. He worked hard at putting things on display and was serious about teaching. He believed deeply in the mission of the museum.

But in the longer term, clearly not. He did not lay a foundation on which others could build. He created a museum that was unable to change with the times. He failed to teach his colleagues or his audiences about the value of the collection. Jenks was a good at curating, but not a good curator. He collected, but never connected.

Museums need both collections and connections. Curators need to collect, and connect. It’s the combination that give museums their power.

Collections

Collections are what make museums unique. Museum collections are more than objects; they are carefully chosen assemblages, the product of a curatorial way of knowing. They are sustained by curatorial expertise. Curators have a distinctive way of understanding objects, making arguments with them, and telling stories with them. Otherwise staid and practical curators slip into poetry when they try to describe this ability to understand objects. George Brown Goode, the first director of the US National Museum, called it “that special endowment… ‘the museum sense.’” Others talk about “object-feel,” or “a good eye.”

Museum sense is acquired by working with objects and collections. It’s more than academic knowledge. It’s more than collector’s expertise. It comes from hands-on work with collections: building them, handling them, the long, slow process of making sense of art, history, or nature from them, and of using them to connect with the larger world.

In the Storeroom

Join me for a visit to the museum storeroom, the place where curators engage with artifacts directly, thinking through the problems of exhibitions or research in a material, affective, way. A museum storeroom might be thought of as a kind of memory palace, an extension of the curator’s brain. Things are organized, available, visible on shelves or ready to be discovered behind neatly labeled cabinet doors. Museum curators have the privilege of access to the storeroom, of seeing the categories made physical, gaining a visceral understanding of how those categories came to be, what they reveal and what they hide. Storerooms highlight the materiality of objects, their heft and presence, a perfect counterbalance to the way that the registrar’s files capture their history and exhibitions their meanings.

My favorite images of storerooms are those taken by Chip Clark, a photographer at the National Museum of Natural History. Clark’s images all include museum staff. The curators and collections managers are overwhelmed by the scale and scope of their collections, perhaps, but they are there, doing the essential work of knowing them, cataloging them, and caring for them.

Entomology collections and staff, National Museum of Natural History. From NMNH Collections Program Photo Gallery,

Clark’s photographs hint at the emotional connections between curators and collections staff and “their” objects. Curators like show off their storerooms. Seb Chan writes about discovering strange things in museum collections: “That is part of the texture and nuance that museum insiders love — and some of the best museum experiences are those where you chance upon a particularly quirky or strange set of objects.”

Museum geographers Hilary Geoghegan and Alison Hess write that storerooms are “shaped by the emotion attached to the objects they house.” A storeroom, they write, is “a lively space…exhibiting a magical, enchanted materiality.” They highlight “the affective, emotional and sensual relationship between people and things.”

Object Knowledge

It’s in the storeroom that curators examine objects. Curators know about things. In part, that’s because they know facts about particular things — they’re experts in seventeenth-century pottery, or dinosaurs, or art. But there’s another part to curatorial knowledge: sometimes, it’s not that they know about particular objects, but that they know how to think about objects, or ask questions about objects, that they have a feeling for how objects work in history. They have a general understanding of about material culture or taxonomy or art history, a sense of the big picture, a knowledge of the history of collecting, and a network of other curators to call upon. They also have a certain healthy skepticism, antennae that go up when something’s not quite right.

One important aspect of this knowledge comes from the curator’s physical connections with the objects. They have the objects, and privileged access to them. Whatever there is to an object that can’t be can’t be described or photographed or digitized — that’s a place to look for particular curatorial knowledge. Geoghegan and Hess offer this list of some of these qualities: “three-dimensionality, weight, texture, surface temperature, smell, taste and spatiotemporal presences.”

Connoisseurship is the old-fashioned word for some aspects of the study of objects. Benjamin Ives Gilman, the secretary of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at the turn of the 20th century, argued that curators needed to be connoisseurs, by which he meant “persons exceptionally fitted to apprehend at once the intentions of genius and the achievements of skill.” This was, for him the opposite of being a pedant; it was a matter of taste, built on deep object knowledge.

Curators of scientific collections, too, exercise their own form of connoisseurship, of object knowledge: Philip S. Doughty, keeper of geology at the Ulster Museum, defined this as “Hunches, intuition…the apparent mystique is in reality a synthesis of a large mass of detail, the product of generations of talented geological curators who have developed, tested and refined skills and practices.”

What can we learn from the materiality of the thing? “Mind in Matter,” Jules Prown’s seminal essay on material culture, calls for “sensory engagement” with the object. The material culture analyst “handles, lifts, uses, walks through, or experiments physically with the object.” What might using the thing tell us? Objects provoke affect; curators respond to them emotionally. Prown calls for “the empathetic linking of the material…world of the object with the perceiver’s world of existence and experience.”

Prown notes that this procedure has its challenges: we are not the people who made the object, or originally used it; we come with different experiences. Part of the job, he says, is to figure out what stories “it can no longer tell.” He also notes that different people will look at it in different ways. These acknowledgements of the limits of curatorial investigation open up ways to bring in new voices: to connect, and reconnect.

Connecting and Reconnecting

The fundamental act of the museum curator is to collect things — that is, to remove them from their natural habitat, their context, and make them part of a collection. Museums decontextualize their collections. They must also recontextualize them. The challenge is to collect enough of the old context with the object so that it does not lose the stories it tells of its former life; but also to connect to new ideas and taxonomies, to find new contexts that allow new uses. Museums do not collect for the sake of collecting; they collect in order to do things with objects they preserve. We need to reconnect them, and connect them anew. Objects connect the world outside the museum to the world within.

The first half of this essay explained the curatorial skills that allow deep connections between the curator and museums collections. That’s a necessary first step, but not enough. We define curatorial skills too narrowly defined when we limit them to collections. I want to expand the definition curatorial work to include all of the ways that collections might connect — with communities, with audiences, and with each other. Curators need to know how to make connections.

I’ll consider three kinds of connection, and what they us about what curators should know: connecting with communities, with audiences, and with each other.

Reconnecting with Communities

Just as good collecting requires understanding context, so does the good use of collections. Using collections requires knowing what was collected, as well as what wasn’t. What’s missing, and why? It requires understanding of the context of collecting, and of the history of the collections. Collections’ history shapes the way we use them and the stories we tell with them. We need to understand collections’ connections — those that were broken, those that survive, those that might be reknit. Curators need to reconnect collections with communities.

Many objects come with a history, and community connections; and all too often, those connections have been lost, or ignored. So many museum objects carry with them the legacies of colonialism, violence and domination, and are defined by a process of curation that excluded some peoples and turned others into objects.

Some museums have therefore turned away from objects. But rather than turn away from objects, museums can turn to new models for understanding and using them. I mentioned earlier Prown’s material culture caveat: he wants us to engage physically with our objects, but warns us that different people will look at it in different ways. This opens up important new ways to bring in new voices. Objects can serve as the fulcrum in museums’ engagement with communities.

Used for planting, eating, decoration, and ceremony, corn and seeds are central to Zuni culture. These samples in the Smithsonian collection may be all that remain of some Zuni heirloom plant varieties. Images: Keren Yairi, Recovering Voices, Smithsonian Institution.

Anthropology museums have a new understanding of source communities as essential to their work. The National Museum of Natural History’s Recovering Voices program, for example, works with communities from which collections were gathered not just to understand the collections, but also to document and revitalize language and knowledge traditions. This makes collections useful to the museum and also to the communities.

Some of the most important calls for reconnecting come from critiques of the colonial origins of traditional museum practices. Amy Lonetree, in Decolonizing Museums, reminds us that “objects in museums are living entities. They embody layers of meaning, and they are deeply connected to the past present and future of indigenous communities. Every engagement with objects in museum cases or in collection rooms should begin with this core recognition. We are not just looking at interesting pieces.”

Artifacts in cultural context, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Nancy Bercaw, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), offers another challenge to traditional material culture study. It is, she notes, “built upon a principle of a fixed knowable materiality — the belief that physical forms embody truth. …The objects carry a natural certainty within them. As a curator of African American history, I cannot help but reflect on how this approach is identical to the racialization of bodies (objects) that similarly were seen to reveal natural truth. The way we know is freighted with history.”

Bercaw contrasts the National Museum of the American Indian, which worried that many of the objects in its collection were tainted by colonialism and the legacy of violence and domination, and not useful to indigenous ways of knowing, and the NMAAHC, which embraced objects — but not the objects already in the collection, but new objects. She writes “We have the power of the Smithsonian, which values the authority of the object, but we have no collections to de-colonize.” NMAAHC’s collecting initiatives offer a revealing insight into the way that connecting serves collecting and community. That museum built its collections by connecting with communities that hadn’t been ready to trust the Smithsonian with their stories until the new museum came along.

Reconnecting with Artifacts

Alongside this decolonizing critique, there’s a resurgence of material culture studies, under a new name, that might offer us a way out of conundrum of disconnected objects. Like the Lonetree and Bercaw critiques, it suggests that things are more complex, with more stories, than the Prownian tradition of material culture suggests.

The new material culture studies are based on Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. Latour wants us to consider the ways that “things” are actors, or, more precisely, what he calls “actants” — they have agency, they put human ideas into motion. He urges us to look at the heterogeneous associations of human and nonhuman actors, the relationship between people and things.

Latour’s followers have urged us to consider what they call the “affordances” of objects. Affordances, writes Ian Hutchby, are “not exclusively properties of people or of artifacts — they are constituted in relationships between people and the materiality of the things with which they come into contact. This means, he continues, that “We need to pay more attention to the material substratum which underpins the very possibility of different courses of action in relation to an artefact.”

If we add to traditional curatorial knowledge — “museum sense” and connoisseurship — an appreciation of the living stories of objects, we get a new understanding of the complexity of artifacts. We can build on new scholarship that puts material things — and thus museum collections — at the center of culture and history. The challenges to traditional material culture studies re-enliven it, suggesting new ways to learn from things

Connecting with Audiences

Exhibitions connect audiences with artifacts. The best writers on exhibition and interpretation remind us that exhibition is not a one-way street; it’s about meeting visitors where they are, about making connections. Freeman Tilden, in his classic book on interpretation, got this right: museums need to figure out how to connect their collections to their audiences. Nina Simon wisely titled her new book, The Art of Relevance.

This is not a new idea. George Brown Goode, the first director of the United States National Museum mentioned earlier for his insistence on curators’ special “museum sense,” also insisted that “No man is fitted to be a museum officer who is disposed to repel students or inquirers or to place obstacles in the way of access to the material under his charge.” Frederic Lucas, curator-in-chief of the Brooklyn Museum at the end of the nineteenth century, wrote that curators must “make the knowledge of others available and understandable by the public.”

Andrea Witcomb, Australian museum curator and author, asks: “is curatorship a smiling profession?” She takes the term from media studies scholar John Hartley, who defines it as those trades where “performance is measured by consumer satisfaction…where knowledge is niceness and education is entertainment.” He contrasts the smiling professions to those which “continue their disciplinary, classical, clubby and institutionalized maleness, as bastions of older notions of power, enemies of smiling.” We might say: is curatorship people work, not just object work? I believe that curatorship is people work; that it should be a smiling profession.

How might we connect this with my emphasis on objects? Nicholas Thomas suggests that objects are key to connecting to people: “museums should foreground the object…in a manner that enables viewers, visitors and audiences to engage with its physicality and materiality, its particular identity and history.”

Thelma Golden in one of her exhibitions. Photograph from The Atlantic.

Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, offers a model for how to do this. The audience for her exhibitions, she insists, are not art historians, but the public. One of the secrets to the success of her exhibitions, she claims, is that she is not an art historian, but rather, a curator, someone who engaged with artists and their work. “I learned to curate from curators.” Her technique for designing exhibitions was simple. She moved the artworks around in the space until it all made sense. “I am someone who is totally experiential,” she told the Washington Post. For Thelma Golden, what’s important is the direct experience of the art, not “works, but works in space.” We might add, works in social space, that is, space with people and things.

Displaying art and artifacts — making exhibitions — is a skill that depends upon the curator’s intimate knowledge of the objects, their knowledge of context, and their connections to audience. A good exhibition is an argument from art and artifact, designed to communicate with its audience.

Conversation

There is something special, and essential, about the curatorial way of knowing. But it can be problematic, too narrowly defined and sharply focused. Remember the Jenks Museum! Curators also need to learn, from audiences and communities, new ways of knowing objects. We need to add to shared authority, the mantra of museum reform over the past decade or two, shared ways of knowing, and new ways of sharing. We need to connect as well as collect.

This is a vexed — and therefore important — time to be making a case for real artifacts and the skills and knowledge of curators. Museums are once again at a moment of revolution. Their position in the cultural landscape is uncertain. For some, their collections seem irredeemably tainted as colonialist. For others, the world of the digital and virtual seems more interesting than the actual and real.

What I want to argue is that collections should remain an essential elements of museum work, but that we need to add to it a second kind of knowledge: connections. Collections and connections, together, are the foundation on which museums can build their future.

How do we better organize museums to build on the strengths we have — our knowledge of objects, collections, and context — and add to them the increasing importance of connection? I’ve used the word “connection” as the title of the second part of this essay. I thought about using the word “conversation.” What I’m really asking for is that the basic forms of curatorial knowledge — objects, collections, context — become part of a conversation that extends in all directions — before collecting, in the museum, and outward, to audiences of all sorts. A recent British survey of curators suggested that collaboration, flexibility and openness to new ideas were the keys to future curatorial success; I’m suggesting here some directions for that collaboration and openness.

Here’s a simple way of expressing the change: all of these skills need to become part of a conversation. A conversation within the museum is a good first step — between departments, and between generations. But even more important is to extend that conversation beyond the borders of the museum — with visitors, with the communities we’re curating, and more.

The challenge is how to open those curatorial conversations. I’ll end with a few questions that might serve as conversation starters…

  • How do you work with people and communities?
  • What is the relationship between curatorial knowledge and community knowledge?
  • How do you share your expertise and power with others, and what do you offer when they share theirs? How do you acknowledge that your knowledge isn’t enough?

We’re at a moment in museums where many people are proposing new roles for them, new social and cultural needs that museums might fill. What I’m interested in is how to fill those needs — how museums can be useful — in a way that takes advantage of their strengths — in particular, their collections and curatorial expertise. If we don’t — well, remember what happened to the Jenks Museum. One might diagnose the problem as Prof. Jenks’s inability to connect.

What curators need to do, I argue, is to share their collections, their knowledge, and especially their ways of knowing, with other people — with audiences and with community members. Curators know things. So do other people. Connecting will make both museums and communities stronger.

[Versions of this essay were given as talks at the National Museum of American History and the University of Michigan Museum Studies Program. My thanks to everyone who offered advice and suggestions. This essay is based on material from my Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present (Harvard University Press, 2017).]
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