Object Lessons
October 22, 2009 6:41 AM   Subscribe

What Should Museums Throw Out? At a time when controversial moves by major art museums are making the public more aware than ever of how museums collect or discard objects, the University College of London's museum invites visitors to play curator in the exhibit Disposal, viewing some white-elephant objects and determining their fate. The museum also just wrapped up another innovative exhibit on objects and point of vew, Object Retrieval, in which one object was explored and responded to by a rolling team of contributors from varying displines, 24 hours a day, for one week.
posted by Miko (21 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This sort of transparency and demystification of museum work is refreshing, and pretty new, and definitely aimed at increasing public literacy about material culture and what museums aim to do. They strike me as good exhibition ideas, and I'll wager that more exhibitions of this type will soon be cropping up on the US side of the pond, too.
posted by Miko at 6:42 AM on October 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

If they don't want that stuff, can I have it?
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:50 AM on October 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

I have a hard time throwing out a torn, unworn t-shirt, so I can't imagine how hard it is to deaccession something with even a bit of history behind it.

I'm much more a fan of the Victorian style of museum, as typified by the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford. I like the cases stuffed full of a jumble of artifacts that one can spend hours browsing over. Here's the knife from Daughters of Cain! Here are some shrunken heads! Arabian flintlocks! Wooooo!

PS - Miko, if the PEM wants to unload any of their shrunken heads, please give me a call.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:59 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Huh, awesome. I really like this sort of transparency; several museums I've worked at have had real problems with deaccesioning. Usually there was some sort of outcry in the past, which led to an institutional aversion to getting rid of anything at all... which led to storage problems, and the refusal to get rid of objects that were frankly unexhibitable, and weird, stranded, little outgrowths of the collection that reflect the passing obsession of some curator 60 years ago. I think it's good that museums don't take deaccessioning lightly, but sometimes that sentiment goes too far. This seems like a good counterweight.
posted by COBRA! at 7:16 AM on October 22, 2009


I once went on a tour of the local town museum's storage vaults. The message from the curators was basically "Yes, bequest us things, but for the love of god bequest us the money to look after them too".
posted by Coobeastie at 8:03 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like the cases stuffed full of a jumble of artifacts that one can spend hours browsing over.

A Cabinet of Curiosities.

posted by empath at 8:09 AM on October 22, 2009

Easy: get rid of the hippo skull, the English Channel cores, and the Agatha Christie basket. Bada bing bada boom.
posted by Dr. Send at 8:14 AM on October 22, 2009

Most of the stuff on review sounds like cooler versions of the stuff lying around my house... ancient masks, antique surgical tools, funny bits of rock. They should hold an auction for the stuff they decide has to go, and then someone else can play with it for a while!
posted by FatherDagon at 8:45 AM on October 22, 2009

I seem to recall that the Harvard Museum of Natural History has been having a similar problem. They have a wonderful attic storing all sorts of weird and wonderful bits and bobbins. It's seriously straight out of Indiana Jones, all dusty beams and forgotten treasures, like an entire room filled with animal horns of all shapes and sizes. The horns lack proper documentation, so they couldn't really exhibit them without a massive amount of work, but some of them are hundreds of years old and ridiculously huge. It was like walking into a big game hunter's wet dream. I seriously felt like I was 9-years old again crawling around the attic, armed with a flashlight and my sense of adventure.

Poking around up there was easily one of my favorite museum experiences of all time, but this wasn't an area that was open to the public, and it's likely an insurance nightmare in addition to being overstuffed and expensive to maintain. It'd be tragic to just get rid of all this great "junk", but what exactly can you do with a 50-year old, very moth-eaten, but thoroughly charming, stuffed kangaroo? It's not feasible to keep everything, so demystifying the culling process and inviting the public to engage with it just seems like such a brilliant idea. I really hope this idea starts catching on.
posted by Diagonalize at 9:07 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I once worked in the donations department of a Salvation Army in the Amherst MA area. It was my job to receive and/or reject donations and then organize them. Every weekend, there'd be a line of fuel-efficient minivans filled to bursting with odd crap that wealthy, progressive boomers no longer wanted in their house, but couldn't bear to simply throw away. Some strange blend of environmentalism, a sense of charity, and the chance to get a tax deduction form compelled these waste-not-want-notters to externalize their pack-ratting.

And I was the gate keeper. I spent my Saturdays squabbling with well-meaning folks, sometimes to the point of screaming matches, over whether or not we could take their dented metal office furniture, their collection of painted Styrofoam birds, inkjet printers with no patch or power cord, cardboard boxes filled with a damp melange of clothing and literature.

Oh, the books.

At the time, I had just failed out of college for the first time and wanted to become a writer. I was ecstatic to suddenly find a myself in charge of a vast 27 shelf library full every weird thing you can imagine. This was the Amherst, Northampton area, of course, so we got old college text books and art books and crazy self-published poetry and the like. Of course I nicked tons of it; nothing good ever gets to the front of a Salvation Army. I annoyed my new roommates with the ungodly mass of shear stuff I was hoarding from work. I had caught pack-rat fever.

It soured after a few months, of course. The novelty wore off on my new-found materialism as I spent day after day shoveling mounds of treasure no one wanted. Poverty had made all these baubles exciting. Now poverty just made me pissed of at all the plastic shit people of means were spending their money on. We had a special shelf for unopened gift baskets: last-minute presents bought by people who didn't want them for people who didn't want them either. I had become a garbage man in purgatory.

My 27 shelves took on a horrifying new meaning. Here were reams and reams of useless text. This was a graveyard for content that had once been deemed publishable. In a box of 20 or 30 books, I'd be lucky to find one that a real library would ever consider preserving. And I wanted to be a writer. I considered it a chance for immortality. How could I find even brief life in this ocean of wasted pages?

Then, one night, we made mushroom tea and had a bonfire in our backyard. The bonfire was a regular thing for us, and we'd burned through a lot of fire wood and broken furniture that summer. On that particular night, however, we ran out of kindling. It was then that I remembered the stacks and stacks of books I'd built all over the house. We spent the rest of the night casting judgment on poetry, pamphlets, cookbooks, and movie-guides. Some was saved. A few were ever rescued at the brink, pages already lost to the fire.

I remember one of my roommates telling me that I was a Futurist in the Italian tradition, with a flare for fascism and conflict in my artistic endeavor. I wanted to build my empire on the smoldering wreckage of the last eras banality. I envisioned book burning parties where we would call the campus population out to cull their collections and maybe to save and trade a few worthy volumes. Free keg cup if you burn a book. Free book if you find something worth saving. A drunken trial by fire for our over-saturated media climate.

I've grown up a bit and I don't really have my heart set on being a writer anymore. Now I want to be a librarian.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:16 AM on October 22, 2009 [36 favorites]

Poking around up there was easily one of my favorite museum experiences of all time,

Neat observation. These kinds of experiences are often the ones that have the deepest impacts on people from all walks of life -- and when you interview museum staffers, it turns out that these are amazingly often the kinds of experiences that made them say to themselves "I want to work in one of these places!"

And yet for all the reasons you mentioned and even more, they can't really be replicated for the wider public - they don't scale well. They work for individuals and small groups and as exceptions to the general requirements of managing a collection. This is one reason that private donors and supporters are offered the typical 'storage tour,' so that they can get this same frisson of excitement and feel like an explorer and that feeling makes them want to support the museum more (or so we hope).

But I'm really interested in thinking about what the qualities of that discovery-in-the-cabinet-of-curiosities experience really are, and finding out whether there are ways to bring that feeling to more of the public more often.
posted by Miko at 9:19 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Miko, there's a nice exhibit in the Boston Museum of Science where a collection of shells, bones, nests and other animal artifacts are arranged in a series of drawers that you have to pull open to look at. Some are under glass and others are bolted or wired down so you can handle them. It's a pretty humble exhibit in a huge Museum, but my wife and I spent an hour or so in that room on our last visit. It was just tons of fun to open up drawers and be surprised by what you found. I'm sure you could create an art exhibit based on this type of set-up and others along the same idea.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:31 AM on October 22, 2009

If they don't want that stuff, can I have it?

A friend of mine was working as an exhibit preparer at the Field Museum when it became necessary to update one of their most famous exhibits. Science had progressed and the old models were hopelessly obsolete, so it was decided that they would be donated to the Creative Reuse Warehouse. As Tyler was pulling out of the parking lot at the end of the day, his co-worker came running up to flag him down. "They're loading up the truck right now!" They stopped the truck but the driver couldn't sell them there, so Tyler tailed him to the CRW's space in Indiana and bought the entire set before he could unload.

And that's how my friend Tyler came to have a half-dozen plaster life-sized naked Neanderthal models in his basement.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

open up drawers and be surprised

That's a good element to notate. In fact the museum where I work now has something similar going on with drawers. I'm actually a big fan of developing exhibitry that calls on visitors to take a physical action - lift a door, slide a slider, open a drawer, turn a knob -- as simple as the idea seems, there is something very much hardwired into human beings about the "open up and see what's inside" interaction, which seems to lead to increased attention to the content that is newly revealed, and often to surprise or delight.

I think I'm gonna think more about the experience of viewing object in storage, jumbled, in surprising juxtapositions, and so on, and maybe even take it to AskMe. I think the activity-leading-to-surprise element you call out is one of the important aspects of how unusually powerful the behind-the-scenes experience is.
posted by Miko at 10:01 AM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

es_de_bah, since I'm still aspiring to be a writer, can I borrow that story for a piece of short fiction?
posted by SansPoint at 11:26 AM on October 22, 2009

This is a really interesting idea. Proper museum storage is expensive (climate control especially). Smaller museums have the same amount of unusual and one-off items as big museums, and just don't know what to do with it. At one internship during college the curator showed me how to check the voodoo dolls for silverfish. Their stuff was mostly being eaten by bugs, and interns scared the bugs off.

Another side to this are private collectors. An 'archaeology enthusiast' I met had a massive collection of rocks. They were supposed to be grinding stones, but no museum would take basically a roomful of 50 pound rocks.
posted by shinyshiny at 11:58 AM on October 22, 2009

Throw the hippo skull, as there are many in the world; keep the cores and get them analysed already.

When preserving things, you always have to think about a) rarity, and b) easy of replacing. A Times newspaper doesn't need saving from anytime in the last century, because the whole of the collection will have already been microfilmed. Keeping the originals of newspapers is the job of specialty collections, like the British Library, and there is no point unless you have a full run. There are thousands of hippo skulls in the world, a lot of them still attached to hippos. But the cores from the channel are not easily replaced, and things like a 19th century surgical mask are rare enough to preserve because there just aren't that many and they are impossible to replace. If your museum can't store it, sell it to a collector or another museum.

As for anything on tape (audio, visual) - they should just be digitized for preservation. The information is in the sound/image, not the physical form. A few examples of obsolete storage media should be kept, but we don't need to keep all.
posted by jb at 1:46 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

keep the cores and get them analysed already.

This is a real toughie. At the last museum I worked in, we had a similar collection of bags and bags of soil removed from an archaeological investigation of a 1600s garden/dooryard side. The bags, in theory, contain information that could be quite useful, in the form of pollen and soil deposits - stuff people can analyze to learn about past fires and flooding, biodiversity, the travels of specific plant species as they colonized or invaded, all kinds of interesting climate and geological knowledge. Which is awesome.

Except that soil analysis is a notorious issue. It has to be done in a lab by qualified people, and it has to be done for a purpose, to unlock some kind of specific information which is in the soil. So it is project-based. Unless there is a defined, funded project at some university which can properly handle the material and staff the investigation and report it, you can't do anything with the soil samples. Museums have neither the expertise to analyze soil (most don't, anyway) nor the funds to hire soil analysts, nor a compelling reason to want to know what's in the soil. But they know the soil contains some information of some value to someone and probably of some value to society in general, so they won't, or can't, easily just throw it out.

my former museum still has hundreds of bags of soil in several freezers.
posted by Miko at 1:53 PM on October 22, 2009

my former museum still has hundreds of bags of soil in several freezers.
posted by Miko

Call me weird, but statements like this are why I love museums and why I love Metafilter. Great post Miko.
posted by marxchivist at 6:35 PM on October 22, 2009

Yard sale. Big yard sale.

In all seriousness, if the chain of provenance is preserved, does it matter for future generations who "owns" the object? Consider the Elgin Marbles. Sure, the British Museum has them, but they are just as authentic as if they were in Greece.
posted by SPrintF at 6:43 PM on October 22, 2009

does it matter for future generations who "owns" the object?

It doesn't matter for authenticity, but it does matter for scholarly (and public) access.
posted by Miko at 7:13 PM on October 22, 2009

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