The Fetishism of Artefacts

Let's talk some more about collecting; a subject of endless fascination for me. More specifically, let's talk about how museums choose objects to enter into their collection.

When I read Peter Gathercole's essay, "The Fetishism of Artefacts," the first time, several years ago, I didn't really understand it. Sure, I got the Marxist undertone, the bitter cynicism, and his call for greater openness in the museum profession. But when I re-read it a few days ago, I realized just how much he was speaking from experience; and my own work experience in a collection echoed back at me through his words. Last night, Gathercole -- “To put the question more generally, are artefacts regarded by curators as basic to the existence of museums, or is it the knowledge concerning artefacts which is basic, the artefacts being merely illustrative of that knowledge?” -- came to mind again.

My colleague and I went to the house of a potential donor, a woman who over 35 years has amassed a vast collection of Victorian and Edwardian hat pins, hair jewelry, and brooches. Initially, the donor approached us to take the entire collection, which she estimated at over 300 pieces; for a variety of reasons, including the prohibitive appraisal costs of such a large quantity of small objects, we refused. However, she suggested that we could choose the items we wanted, and so, armed with a list of criteria, we went to her house to "shop" for artefacts.

Even in compiling the criteria, it became clear that objects were interchangeable, so long as they represented something; materials, condition, style all took precedence. We honestly didn't even consider provenance as a good enough reason for acquiring an object. Of course, a museum cannot take everything, which would be truly representative: the whole world might be a museum in that case, where every object had innate historic importance. But it was painful, looking at the treasures that this woman had collected, knowing that we had to choose a maximum of two dozen objects, and filter even further her own filters for her collecting activities.

The other thing that I realized last night was that many objects gain significance as part of a series: when we isolated particular pieces, they either looked too ordinary, or too extraordinary. To choose something "representative," to be a synecdoche for the whole, was difficult precisely because that was not how the original collection had been formed. Every item there gained meaning because it was similar to and yet different from every other item.

The next day, I am still torn. I can't be sure that we chose the pieces we did for the right reasons. After all, we already have hatpins in our collection, and they are in situ, in hats; these pieces, removed several times over from their original context, have been fetishized multiple times. And my own curatorial expertise has only served to obscure the objects even further.

So let's consider this my mea culpa. Forgive me, future museum audiences, for I have sinned. It has been 13 days since my last confession.


Ceri said…
Wow I am glad I do not have your job!? I cannot imagine how hard it would be to choose what you will assume to be of interest to audiences now as well as in the future. I always wonder how this part of the 21st century will be portrayed in the future and I am intrigued to think what objects will be used to represent the lives of so many diverse people living completely different lives. If it is even possible considering now the plethora of objects that we have, more than previous centuries surely??
J said…
I do love my job, and there is a heady sense of power in being able to pick and choose from what people offer us, but it is a difficult thing to do. We do have a lot of stuff now, much more than people did in earlier centuries, before the "Consumer Revolution" Neil McKendrick describes, but so much of it is not collectible. Obsolete technology, items made from highly unstable materials (the V&A have huge problems with modern furniture, for example, because much of it used experimental materials and techniques), things made to be inherently disposable... It's a tough call to be representative yet not to hoard, to be populist yet make sure items interesting for their uniqueness aren't under or over represented, either. I must confess, though, that I don't think about these issues on a daily basis: it's one of the privileges of advanced study that I even know there are issues!

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