…everything else is just hearsay

It’s refreshing to see more emphasis being placed on collections again by the Museums profession, though how long it will last is anyone’s guess. These things seem to go in cycles, but I suspect that it’s more to do with either boredom (we’ve done that kind of thing to death, let’s move on to something new) or fashion (focusing on [schools | families | outreach | internet | techie gadgets | presentation | best value - delete as appropriate] is so 2003). Always, though, in search of a panacea that will make museums a must-visit for everybody.

Why do we feel that we have to do that? Why the need to appeal equally to everyone? It’s as if Sports Centres would feel unfulfilled because they don’t appeal to the fat, lethargic, unathletically-inclined. What’s next? Hospitals for the healthy?

Sorry about that. Anyway, what’s cheering about the emphasis on collections is that, for the vast majority of us working in museums at least, it was the objects, the collections, the wonderful, real, tangible (carefully of course) things that attracted us into the job in the first place.

Or maybe it’s just me. I remember my moment of conversion - not as it happens, on the road to Damascus, but in William Brown Street in Liverpool. As part of the first year of my Archaeology degree we had a session in Liverpool Museum. In a sense nothing very exciting, just some bits of broken pottery (which almost sums up archaeology in two words :-)). But this pottery was from the earliest neolithic levels at Jericho, so it was bits of some of the oldest pottery there is. One piece in particular is still fresh in my mind nearly 22 years later: thick-walled, poor quality, as pottery quite rubbish, but with the maker’s fingerprints still visible in the fabric. Touching the past - it seemed (and still seems) like making physical contact with that unknown person across the millennia. You can read all you want, but nothing can surpass that feeling. Only objects are real: the physical manifestation of the ancient (or not-so-ancient) past, the distant land, the hidden world around us. No virtual experience can come close, no second-hand image or description in a book can give that thrill. That’s what museums have. And everything else - the books and manuscripts, pictures, videos, computer simulations, everything that is mere words - is just hearsay and opinion.

3 Responses to “…everything else is just hearsay”

  1. The Curator’s Egg » Blog Archive » Double Lammy Says:

    [...] The Curator’s Egg Parts of it are excellent « Going critical [...]

  2. The Curator’s Egg » Blog Archive » Sense of history Says:

    [...] Right back at the beginning of this blog I wrote about the experience which more than any other led me to working in museums. Now while that fixed in my head the value, the importance, of objects as the physical link to our past, it must be admitted that very few museums will provide that kind of experience. Indeed they generally (and we are no exception) provide almost the antithesis of it. For what was magic about my interaction with the 10,000 year old broken pottery? The fact that I held it in my hands - like making a physical contact with that unknown person ten millennia ago who made the pot (and whose fingerpints could still be seen in it), and with the people who had used it. [...]

  3. The Curator’s Egg » Blog Archive » Title fight Says:

    [...] Once upon a time I used to do really curatorial things - cataloguing collections, researching and writing exhibitions, rooting through the collections* - all the interesting things I’ve referred to elsewhere. One of the penalties of increasing management responsibility is that you end up doing less and less of what you came into museums to do, though I managed to avoid that for the first few years in my present post. These days I hardly see the inside of the museum store from one week to the next, and as for cataloguing objects - well, I have changed a couple of database entries in the last few years, and I did fill in some entries in the daybook a few months ago, but that’s about it. [...]