“Are we here to serve the stuff or the people?”

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.


David Crosson

David Crosson

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.

2 Comments

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  1. David Allison 21. Oct, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    This is a fantastic point, David. I agree 100% that this issue needs to start with the audience. There is no intrinsic value to artifacts if they are decontextualized and have no meaning for people.

    I believe that some of the best museums don’t feature artifacts at all. Science Museums and Children’s Museums provide incredible value for people by focusing on entertainment and serving their needs as a way to hook them into further inquiry and learning.

    I’d love for history museums to begin to put their audience first as they look toward using their collections to entertain and delight. Artifacts are just old stuff at the end of the day if they aren’t used as one of many potential tools (a great analogy from David, by the way) to provide engaging experiences.

  2. Mark White 04. Dec, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

    The City of Detroit owns the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA collection has many, many billions of dollars of financial value as well as priceless cultural value. Given Detroit’s fiscal crisis, would the people choose to keep the DIA collection intact and give up essential municipal services, or would they cut the DIA collection (10%? 20%? 80%? 90%?) and use the funds to maintain services and jumpstart a recovery? That would be a very stark choice if those were indeed the only options. Fortunately, Detroit can have its Monet and money, too, with Coaccession:

    http://www.indiegogo.com/Artworks-supporting-the-arts

    With the capital income that financial value could produce in an endowment, Detroit could fully fund the arts that created the value as well as the essential services that let Detroit residents stay near it.

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