Are Collections Old Bones or New Ideas?

In her Summer 2011 article in History News Rainey Tisdale asks, “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?“. Linda Norris offers the following reply. We encourage you to share your thoughts, questions and feedback as well.

Linda Norris

Linda Norris

As a history museum consultant—and avid museumgoer—I’ve seen more than my share of pioneer kitchens, barns filled with farm tools, Spanish-American war uniforms and white petticoats, and parlors with overstuffed furniture. And despite that, every once in a while I’m so struck by an object in a history museum that just conveys so much about a community’s past. But all to often, that’s just a lucky happenstance, rather than the work of the museum.

We absolutely still need objects—but we need to experiment more broadly, be less rigid, and encourage our communities to view our collections in new ways. Sometimes it’s re-contextualizing what’s right in front of your eyes. I still remember a large case full of 18th century silver and furniture at the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition about slavery in New York. I don’t remember it because I care about Chippendale furniture (because I don’t), but I remember it because of the label, which said something like, “Everything in this case was made by slaves, cleaned or dusted by slaves, cared for by slaves.” Now that’s a different way of looking at objects.

2012 is the 20th anniversary of Fred Wilson’s groundbreaking critique in the form of an exhibition, “Mining the Museum,” at the Maryland Historical Society. I’d argue that we, as a field (with some notable exceptions) have ignored the challenge that Wilson placed upon us.

But with resources so limited is there time for this experimentation? Absolutely! And that involves direct involvement with community on many levels and the experimentation that Rainey suggests. Without those, history museums may be destined to go the way of the dinosaur, with our old bones pondered over by future scholars.

About the author:
Linda Norris is managing partner of Riverhill ( that specializes in exhibitions, interpretation, and planning for museums and historical organizations. She also writes the blog, The Uncataloged Museum about the work of museums. She was a United States Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine in 2009 and 2010.

One Comment

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  1. Michelle Moon 31. Aug, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

    Thanks for the post, Linda! Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of objects. Especially in light of recent history, I feel it’s actually becoming more and more important to preserve the evidence of the past – the whole past, if we can – to create the undeniable primary source for assertions about who we are and where we’ve been. But I share your frustrations – we somehow doubt the power of objects, and too often miss the mark by failing to interpret them in powerful and relevant ways. I’d really like to see us get back to the object and rethink display and access – we need to take some profoundly different approaches to allow people to see, handle when possible, investigate, experiment, listen to, re-organize, reproduce, and think about objects in much deeper ways than are typical for museums right now.

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