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.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Museums of Home or ‘When you hold on to things a few decades too long'

‘and on the pavement lay
Carved stones of the Abbey-ruin in the park,
Huge Ammonites, and the first bones of Time:
Jumbled together; celts and caluments,
Claymore and snowshoe, toys in lava, fans
Of Sandel, amber, ancient rosaries.
Laborious orient ivory sphere in sphere,
The cursed Malayan crease, and battle clubs
From the isles of palm; and higher on the walls,
Betwixt the monstrous horns of elks and deer,
His own forefather’s arms and armour hung’
~Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Princess, 1860.


What makes a museum a museum? It’s an honest question. The definition of ‘museum’ has evolved over the centuries. Once the Egyptians and Greeks held the museum to be a storehouse of knowledge; limited to the study and purview of scholars and visiting dignitaries that they wanted to show it off to. Now, museums are places of learning for all; open (mostly), accessible (we hope), and educational (ideally). Museums exist in all sorts of buildings (including travelling vans), in all sorts of subjects (I once visited a museum on the mythical history of magic) and can, as far as I’m concerned, also be counted as a ring of 3000 year old stone on some Scottish moor. Museums are places of history.

The idea of a private collection is older than the concept of the ‘mouseion’. The Romans quite enjoyed collecting old things...so much so that they copied what they couldn’t get originals of. The last 1000 years of history has seen private collections surge. They are the origin of the modern museum after all. But are they still acceptable? Are we still allowed, as private individuals, to keep a collection of historical artefacts that no one, beyond friends and family, will ever see?

Tricky question. The ideal answer is no. Anything of historical value should be in a public collection at an appropriate museum. But there’s the rub, because more often than not, the objects will be kept in storage and never see the light of day except – perhaps – if they are deemed important enough for scholarly study. Maybe, one year, for a few days, perhaps. Would it not be better if they were in a private home where, at least, a few dozen people could marvel and enjoy?

I have a feeling most of you are shaking your heads, but I might be pleasantly surprised. I don’t have an answer myself. I don’t have an answer because my family has been treading that treacherous ground for over sixty years. I could say one thing and be a hypocrite, or say another and be a horrible museologist. Those aren’t really good choices. So, in the age old way of avoiding the question, I’m going to tell you a lovely story...and then you can decide.

The whole thing is a bit hazy. Most stories of the past are. There are a few things I’m not quite certain about, but I’ll try to fill in the blanks anyways.

In the 1940s my great-grandfather was given a beautiful gift. It was a set of ceremonial clothing from the Blackfoot Indian Tribe that originated in Southern Alberta. The story of how he came to be given this is lost, though rumour remains. We do know that the gift was made by the native man’s wife, who had made the clothing for him. It was barely worn. The beadwork is a thing of beauty just of itself.

But that is not the start of the story. A decade earlier my great-grandparents had built a summer house in central Ontario, as one typically did in those days. My great-grandmother loved antiques, and had a house full of them. At the summer house, everything was new (though it’s all antique now). They lined the walls with photographs and paintings and shipped in wood furniture from Montreal. It was all a little kitschy though, as summer houses usually are. The colours were sort of horrible, the decor was sort of outdated and everyone loved it. What made them decide to hang a group of Indian textiles on the hallway wall is beyond me.

What made them decide to thumb tack them into place is beyond my comprehension. And there that have stayed, for over sixty years; through plus 40* humid temperatures, and -40* ice storms, in a completely unregulated, pest-infested, smokers’ house! The very idea makes me shudder. I’m sure you are doing the same.

From my earliest memories I remember staring at these garments. Perhaps they are the reason I am a museologist. What I do know is that, despite conversations over the years, no one in the family thought to seriously raise the point that such items would be better off in a museum until this time last year. Ironically, I was not the one to mention it. A cousin who lives in Alberta, not far from where the Blackfoot tribe originated, first raised the issue. Things moved shockingly swiftly after that. And so, last August, the family availed themselves of my expertise; the garments were carefully removed from the rusted nails upon which they hung; lovingly package in acid-free wrapping; and packed in a box for shipment to the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. After conservation work is completed, they intend to be put on display.

So now the walls that have been filled for my whole life-time are bare, but the view no longer induces a panicked worry about the destruction of historical artefacts. And now, many, many more people can enjoy the objects than would ever have seen them in a summer house in central Ontario. However, a piece of my family history is now gone, and that is a sentimental issue that will take some time to settle. It seems, almost, like giving away a piece of our pasts...back to the people whose past it really is, of course. This raises many points, not least about private collections and native object repatriation. Certainly the last twelve months have been a personal learning experience for myself and my family in these areas. But ultimately, we know we made the right choice. I hope one day to visit the museum and see them in their proper place.

2 comments:

Kerri said...

I love this story. I'm trying to decide on which side of the fence I'd fall. We have a family sword in the Manitoba Museum that I'm quite proud of. It was never really "in the family" in a private collection for generations though - it was acquired by the museum ages ago and is associated with the Red River rebellion.

I am glad that the sword is in the museum. It was on permanent display for ages (not sure if it still is), so it definitely has had a better life than in someone's attic.

This kind of topic brings up a lot of issues around acquisitions and disposals. Do you acquire something, even something unique, if you can't foresee specific display opportunities in the near future? Is the object required in current research? If not, once acquired, the museum must house it for forever - a very long time. With storage and display space at a premium in every museum, maybe it is better for some objects to be enjoyed in other ways - like in private collections.

MuseumWriter said...

I think the consideration about room in a museum is a very important one to this discussion. Certainly the last museum I was with had a huge problem with that. They wanted to accept everything to 'get it out of the public's attic', but did not have the room. In some case, I think, the object might be better looked after by a private family than left to 'rot' in a museum store room.