In her Summer 2011 article in History News Rainey Tisdale asks, “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?“. David Crosson offers the following reply. We encourage you to share your thoughts, questions and feedback as well.
The question, “Do history museums still need artifacts?” is the wrong one. The issue is not one of resources or means, but one of fundamental values. Are we here to serve the stuff or the people? I vote for people. Before we are curators or conservators or librarians or even directors, we are public servants. So, let’s start the inquiry at a different point. How does society benefit from understanding our collective experience over time? (And please don’t offer the hokum about avoiding the mistakes of the past.) How can museums contribute to that exploration? Don’t just defend our role, define it. Then, and only then, what is the role of artifacts in accomplishing museums’ defined role? That sequence of questioning suggests that artifacts are tools, means to ends, not ends in themselves.
Unfortunately, those questions seldom are raised in our professional training programs, not shared among our peers, and not supported by our various statements of professional ethics. Professional training must re-prioritize loyalty to the end—public service, if you will—over the means (the artifact). After thirty years of emersion in discussions around professional ethics, I find it appalling that no statement of which I am aware even hints that it might be unethical to horde collections that the public may never have the opportunity to see. Finally, we desperately need to accept access, utility, and public accountability as professional obligations equal to, and inseparable from, care, conservation, and scholarship.