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.
The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.