Sense of history

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 fingerprints could still be seen in it), and with the people who had used it.

But what do museums provide? The same objects safely behind glass, or things on open display signed ‘Please do not touch’. Yet all too often the full experience can only be had by touching. I can already hear curators and (especially) conservators wincing (if it’s possible to wince audibly), and indeed the dangers of fragile objects being on open display were illustrated recently. Accidents will happen, eh?

The question then is how can we safely - both from the point of view of the objects and the public - make our collections more available. How can we share with the public (who after all pay for the service through taxation) the thrill we get from handling these objects.

As the Fitzwilliam’s director said:

“Whilst the method of displaying objects is always under review, it is important not to over-react and make the Museum’s collections less accessible to the visiting public.”

I’m not sure what the long-term answer is. We need to balance two essentially incompatible aims - to provide access, with the inevitable risks of damage and detrioration, and to preserve the collections for the future. My first thought is perhaps to have a regular programme of supervised handling opportunities, advertised in the press, and inviting visitors to ‘Get in touch with the past’. But I don’t mean a specially-created ‘handling collection’, I mean real objects from the core collections, and it will mean taking some risks.

Indeed, having thought of the title, I now feel quite enthused. It’s time to share the experience.

2 Responses to “Sense of history”

  1. S.J. Redman Says:

    This is a really tough question, and a really great post to explore that question. I would say that the heart of the problem is that not only does handling collections does irreversible damage to them, NOT handling a collection won’t totally prevent it from disappearing over time. All matter deteriorates, a museum’s job is to keep it from deteriorating as long as possible, yet, not using an object for research or education doesn’t really do anyone much good either.

    Early in my museum career I noticed something about the general public, if they CAN touch it, they WILL touch it. Even if something is behind a metal bar, and someone has to hold out their arm and leaaaaan forward, they will try to touch a fossil, a vase, a mummy, whatever. The sad truth is that objects that can be broken need to be stabilized behind glass. Exhibits designers need to think about this when they put a vase or a statue on top of a nice looking mount. Plain and simple.

    As far as research collections (objects not on display) we again need to find a balance. Somewhere in between letting anyone and everyone who wants to touch an object (and once again, even when in research collection spaces, I’ve seen people on tours grab for objects without gloves even though they were warned not to) and never granting access to scholars.

    In an ideal world, with an unlimited number of available staff hours, museums should let anyone with any sort of vested interest come look at collections. Unfortunately for everyone, however, this isn’t an ideal world.

    Again, great post, thanks for getting my brain going!

    -S.J. Redman
    Museum Madness

  2. Cath Says:

    …unless your collection is a public archive, in which case people are welcome to touch (with care).

    I agree you can’t beat the originals… and as your archaeological story suggests, it’s even more satisfying to commune with the past if you get that experience as a result of a lot of digging, whether literal or figurative.

    Thanks for sharing some excellent egg-parts,