“Wouldn’t it just make people feel?”

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

Ron M. Potvin

Ron M. Potvin

When I read this article, I had a couple of gut responses, which led me to link my response to an exhibition that I recently visited.

Gut reaction 1: The key to this debate, in my opinion, is that museums are no longer mainly repositories—warehouses for carefully managed but rarely displayed objects. Increasingly, museums are in the business of engaging (or entertaining, if you like) the public. Simply put, without stuff inside, a warehouse is simply an empty building without purpose. Likewise, if we remove objects from museums, we should expect the same result.

Gut reaction 2: There is a place for museum displays that do not have authentic objects. Pop-up museums come to mind, as do public interfaces of digitized collections, which serve as both a form repository and a source of engagement—a marrying of the “old” and “new” museum. But perhaps we are stretching the definition of “museum” to an uncomfortable straining, if not breaking, point. Maybe that’s what we’re really debating: the definition of museum, and curator, as we move into the future.

I recently visited the impressive United States Capitol Visitors Center. Overall, the space is a testament to the vitality of the public’s interest in our government and the history that surrounds it. However, the interpretive gallery spaces, while impressive in their security, climate and light control, and professionally mounted displays, seemed soulless. Part of my reaction stemmed from feeling walled off from the displays by thick panes of security glass, and a feeling of oppression caused by the dim lighting and surprising silence of the space.

But what bothered me most is that there just weren’t enough objects. The objects that were on display, some of which should have been stirring, were lost amidst labels and graphics. Other objects were mounted in a way that seemed to diminish rather than celebrate them, or were positioned in a manner that blunted their emotional effect—chairs and desks turned sideways, in profile, rather than confronting the visitor face-on, for instance.
In a sentence that allowed me to connect my gut reactions to the article with my experience at the Capitol Visitors Center, Rainey writes, “I don’t believe doing great things with our collections necessarily means bringing in a lot of technology or expensive exhibitry—such techniques can drown artifacts just as much as illuminate them.” I couldn’t agree more.

While speaking about Vaughan’s “Rembrandt Rule” at last year’s AASLH conference, a topic that I’ll reprise in Richmond this year, I sided with expanded sensory and experiential use of collections. My argument is that the usefulness of objects in creating memorable experience trumps the “P” side of preservation. So I can relate when Rainey writes, “We still haven’t worked out what to do with the demand for good old-fashioned touching.”

Wouldn’t it be great, if instead of placing one of those tiny congressional desks and chairs behind a glass barrier, the Capitol Visitor’s Center placed one right on the floor for people to sit in, and even to write on? Not a reproduction, but the real thing. Wouldn’t that enable visitors to feel truly connected to the person who sat there, uncomfortable, for hours of debate? Wouldn’t that allow visitors to feel a visceral connection to the past? Wouldn’t that make them feel, just a little, like a member of congress, someone important to our government? Wouldn’t it just make people feel?

I didn’t intend to digress into a critique of one particular exhibition, because the United States Capitol Visitors Center is well within the mainstream of modern exhibit design, and in many ways is far ahead of the curve. And they do invite visitors to touch some highly durable objects and reproductions. But if there is a museum that should be symbolic of access, shouldn’t it be this one? And I know that there are many valid professional arguments that weigh against letting me sit in that chair—but wouldn’t it be great? It’s something we need to figure out as a field. Point 2 in Rainey’s article resonates most loudly with me: “We don’t need objects unless we do something great with them.”

About the author:
Ron M. Potvin is Assistant Director & Curator of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University.

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