Do History Museums Still Need Objects?

Do History Museums Still Need Objects?This special History News: Your Turn feature complements the article by Rainey Tisdale entitled “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?” which appears in the Summer 2011 edition of History News.

[Read PDF of Full Article]

Rainey Tisdale

Rainey Tisdale

My article uses Steven Conn’s recent book Do Museums Still Need Objects?, as a jumping-off point for considering seven major issues currently confronting history museums and historic sites as they seek to make their collections meaningful, relevant, and accessible for a general audience. I raise a lot of complicated questions in this piece, and my goal was to stimulate dialogue across the field so we can answer them together. Let’s use Your Turn to have a deep and thoughtful conversation about the challenges and possibilities of our collections.

The piece packs in quite a few issues so feel free to address whatever in particular strikes a nerve or sparks a thought.

Keep an eye out over the next several weeks for thoughts from some of the people whose commentary helped shape this article.

Additional Resources

Here are some links to online sources and projects referenced in the article:

About the Author:

Rainey Tisdale is an independent curator who has worked in history museums since the late 1990s, most recently for the Bostonian Society. She teaches material culture in the Tufts University Museum Studies graduate program.

It’s Your Turn

  • Do history museums still need objects?
  • How can we develop a widespread culture of creativity and experimentation when it comes to our collections?
  • If we started over in 2011, building our collections from scratch, what would they look like?
  • Now that online databases are allowing us to see overlaps between collections, how can we more effectively avoid duplicating each other’s efforts?
  • Going beyond geo-tagging, how else might we use digital tools to radically reorganize the ways we see and understand objects?
  • Has the preservation/access pendulum swung too far to the P side?
  • What kind of retraining do you need to become a 21st-century curator?

Jump in and share below.

Responses Received:

Linda Norris offers a reply: “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.”
Read more …

Ron Potvin shares his gut reactions, and ties his reflections to an exhibition he recently visited. “Point 2 in Rainey’s article resonates most loudly with me: ‘We don’t need objects unless we do something great with them.'”
Read more …

Trevor Jones reacts by describing his ideal world — one in which there would be a tiered system for our collections.
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David Crosson re-frames the question as one of fundamental values. He asks: “Are we here to serve the stuff or the people?”
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Lynne Ireland responds with a resounding “yes” but shares some corollary questions that fuel her institution’s strategic planning discussions as they address the very concrete challenges that surround this issue.
Read more …


Leave a comment
  1. Ged Carbone 23. Sep, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

    An 80-year-old friend of mine, Tom Greene, has essentially turned his 17th Century house into a museum, and for good reason: it is the house where Gen. Nathanael Greene grew up. Tom lives surrounded by several objects from General Greene’s era, but this has not numbed him from the evocative power of objects. I recently visited the Baseball Hall of Fame, and this octogenarian asked: “Did you see Mickey Mantle’s bat?” He had visited the Hall as a boy and still, 70 years later, felt a connection to the bat that Mantle used to clock a 500-foot home run. So yes, objects matter; and in a digital world their display on a website can act as a kind of trailer to draw people in.
    Rainey Tisdale’s observations about ceding curatorial power to the public reminds me of the ongoing discussion in the field I just left after 25 years — journalism. With the democratization of news are editors (journalism’s curators)superfluous, or are they more needed than ever? I lean toward the latter; the more information people have at their fingertips the more they need, and want, experts to concentrate and interpret raw information into understandable experience. By all means share, but do not cede.

    • Ged Carbone 23. Sep, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

      Correction: Mickey Mantle made his debut in 1951, so Tom Greene could not have seen his bat “70 years ago;” make that “decades ago.” This proves the power of an editor or a good curator, someone who can ask: Are you sure about that? Curators need not be dictatorial, but they should ask questions and steer the conversation so, yes, there will always be a need for them.

  2. Emily McCartan 26. Sep, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    Rainey’s article underscores the fundamental point that museums are essentially about multimedia storytelling. From even their earliest incarnations as curiosity cabinets (or, in the case of historic houses, period rooms), museum experiences have been designed to involve audiences in thematic presentations expressed in multiple ways: through oral or written narrative, through images, and through the collection and display of objects. Without the objects themselves, old-school museums would be essentially a book or a catalog spread out gallery-style in warehouse. The mainstreaming of digital tools like geo-tagging and online collection sharing gives museums an exciting array of expanded opportunities to develop diversity of what Rainey calls “curatorial voice,” and to invite audiences to become an interpretive medium themselves. It could be interesting to explore how an online virtual museum, or even a physical museum offering only digital experiences, could continue the tradition of the curiosity cabinet in offering multimedia encounters with ideas about the world. Google has actually made a foray into this field. At it has collaborated with major art museums to produce virtual gallery tours with the ability to explore certain works in impressive high-resolution detail. It is extremely cool, and offers an invaluable degree of access to audiences too distant to view the works in person. But the online gallery experience is still essentially one of a museum in absentia, and, as Rainey points out, cannot completely satisfy the desire to encounter something “real and authentic” that has a physical connection to the past. Museums have a great opportunity, in incorporating new forms of media into their interpretive presentations, to rethink the voices and techniques they use to put audiences in touch with the past. That said, they should also not lose sight of the one medium that is essentially and uniquely theirs, which are the objects that have made the journey from the past themselves.

  3. Elizabeth Gardner 26. Sep, 2011 at 2:23 am #

    I agree with Professor Potvin on the significance of Tisdale’s second point: “We don’t need objects unless we do something great with them.”

    As Ged and Emily note, digital interactive technology can be a great way to enhance the experience of viewing objects in museum collections; the possibilities to give visitors “delights and surprises” are endless. Many art and science museums are using this technology to their advantage – the new American Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is a fine example, with the addition of several interactive kiosks throughout their galleries.

    But it must be noted that the MFA’s new wing was also an expensive undertaking well beyond the financial reach of typical historic house museums. Recognizing this, perhaps we could do as Trevor Jones suggests, and streamline our collections. Is it possible to deaccession objects that no longer enhance our mission and use the funds to improve upon those that do? Or perhaps we can “repurpose” those objects to better suit our needs?

    If digital technology proves to be out of reach for the moment, we may be able to take another cue from the MFA’s new wing. Rather than trash a chair in the collection that was burned beyond repair, curators chose to install it in a special gallery to illustrate current issues in conservation. These “behind-the-scenes” galleries were among the most interesting and exciting new additions. Could we not put the old, worn-out objects in our collections to good use? If visitors can’t touch other, better-quality objects because of preservation concerns, could we substitute the experience of touching those with the experience of touching the lesser-quality examples? Could we use them as “teaching moments”?

    Once we begin thinking outside of the box – or the house; once we begin “thinking green” about the new ways that we can use old objects, we might be surprised at what we can accomplish with what we already have at our (gloved) fingertips.

  4. Catherine Wallace 26. Sep, 2011 at 2:26 am #

    Based on my own visits to house museums, I do consider objects an integral part of the experience. We spend much of our lives acquiring the things with which we decorate and furnish our homes; they thus have great significance to us and to any wishing to understand how we live. How could a house devoid of objects not feel like a house devoid of humanity? From a visitor’s point of view, artifacts serve to make the tour and house more real, more relatable. It is necessary that visitors feel a connection to the former inhabitants of the home; other wise the purpose of the museum is lost.
    From an economic standpoint, it is logical that not all objects can be kept and cared for. Especially if such objects are common in the surrounding area and do not add variety. I believe the most important thing to work towards, then, is culling down collections until they are a reasonable size, choosing to keep the pieces that are most interesting to the public, and using them in unique ways. The objects in and of themselves may not be particularly exciting, but if they can be linked to historical action, they will come alive to the public. I personally have been most intrigued by the artifacts that were accompanied by a specific description–a story about the owners of the house or of the time period. Displays that are regularly switched around and brightened up with a new theme and anecdotes can help catch audiences’ attention and ensure longer-standing patronage.
    I have to say I firmly believe in curators. My family has visited many house museums, most of them because we had prior knowledge of the inhabitants. Many times we do additional research before we undertake the trip. But never have I been to a house museum where I did not learn much more about the person/people then I previously knew. There are many wonderful tools now giving people access to information about artifacts and buildings, but the vast majority of the public does not use such tools and instead come to the home expecting to be informed upon their arrival. Many visitors of historic house museums are of older generations, who do not use technology as frequently or as avidly as younger generations. Without an informed curator and staff, these visitors would not get nearly as much out of the experience. Providing extra information to those who seek it out it always beneficial. It should not, however, replace the position of a curator.

  5. Anna Tifft 26. Sep, 2011 at 3:10 am #

    The National Palace Museum in Taipei has put a significant number of important works of art into an online database. Open to the public, the database allows you to look at certain works of art that are only displayed every other year for a total of three months for preservation purposes. It also allows you to manipulate how you view those works. The incredibly high quality digital scans make it possible to examine drawings much more closely. Details that are hard to perceive with the naked eye are incredibly clear. It’s an amazing resource for anyone interested in art and art history.

    That being said, there is no way to really understand and appreciate the scope and the size of the work through a computer. A six foot ink drawing doesn’t have quite the same overall effect when viewed on a thirteen inch computer screen. It’s hard to understand how amazing the detail is if you can’t view the work in its entirety. This is why objects are still just as necessary in history museums as original works of art are in fine arts museums. Yes, we live in an increasingly digital world, and it seems that for many people, fewer objects are necessary to carry on our daily tasks. We can communicate, read, and learn just about anything from one object. However we still do depend on and identify with objects. But learning about and looking at an object on a screen is not the same as experiencing it. Objects provide us with a way of understanding history that is much more instinctual. So I think that objects are absolutely necessary and I agree with Rainey Tisdale’s assertion that “we need a different model for access.” What has always intrigued me about historic houses is the idea of “living history,” history that is about being understood and experienced almost first hand. In order to make this possible, the objects that are so necessary need to be not only visible but accessible. We should be able to touch and use the objects we see in historic houses; understand what it would have been like to interact with them.

  6. Jess Unger 26. Sep, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    In order for history museums to stay relevant in the twenty-first century, I agree that we must critically re-evaluate collections and collections policies. Not only does an assemblage of objects dictate the facilities and staff needed to preserve them, but they often shape what stories are told at a site. Rainey’s example of spinning wheels hit home for me; I worked at a historic house museum with no fewer than five(!) spinning wheels. These objects took on a life of their own, and over the course of a year I saw how guide’s stories about them evolved so that their presence would make sense to visitors.

    Rainey points out how the collections of many history museums/historic sites are lacking in material objects that tell the story of marginalized groups. She specifically mentions the absence of colonoware, a popular ceramic form amongst American Indians and African Americans. As a historical archaeologist, I know that colonoware is a form that is consistently found at archaeological sites, although in fragmented form. But isn’t there an interesting story in WHY and HOW that object came to be broken and in the ground? Although most archaeological objects are not as beautiful as what is traditionally found in historic collections, they still have interesting stories to tell.

    Another main claim of Rainey’s article is that more objects need to have practical utility for visitors – they need to be experienced with different sense beyond just sight. Could archaeological objects step in here as well? Many items uncovered by excavation are extremely hearty and could be used for demonstration purposes. In addition, these objects encourage deep thinking about what the item might have originally looked like, and might even get people thinking about the processes of preservation that privilege certain objects over others.

    I don’t mean to claim that archaeological objects could be a band-aid to all of the problems associated with history museums/historic sites and their collections. However, they are valuable resources that have traditionally been underutilized.

  7. Jane-Coleman Harbison 26. Sep, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    I was most struck by Rainey Tinsdale’s first point in the article, “we need objects now more than ever.” When I think about history museums (specially house museums), I can see how their reluctance to adapt and change to audience expectations has led them to decline in popularity. Historic House museums, despite their ubiquity, cannot realistically compete with the popularity of new mega-museums such as the “Newseum” in Washington DC (Ged, you would probably appreciate the irony of an interactive museum about journalism.) For the bargain price of $30, you browse through six stories of interactive displays and continuously streaming video. I will admit I have not yet walked through its doors, but the very idea already exhausts me. I believe the hyper-stimulated and burned out visitors of the modern museum could potentially find solace and meaning in the quieter ambiance of a historic home.

    This is not to say that historic homes should not be interactive. Quite the contrary, by interacting with tangible authentic objects, visitors can engage in the material and actually think critically and even learn something rather than simply entertain themselves. Tinsdale charges us to “develop object-centered historical experiences for visitors that are not only educational but also unique, memorable, moving and provocative.” This calling reminds me of an incredible object-learning exhibit I experienced a few weeks ago at Pendleton House of the Rhode Island School of Design. In this exercise, several RISD students put themselves to the task of re-imaging the purpose and meaning of the objects in the historic house, launching a performative exhibit where the students reenacted the “personalities” of various objects including a cream pitcher, a marble table, and an oil painting. By recasting the objects into subjects, the students enabled the visitors to have actual conversations with paintings and teapots. Visitors were free ask the objects various questions about artistic influences, provenance, and the fascinating personal stories of the objects’ owners.

  8. Guy Hermann 21. Oct, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    I would add an 8th point: We need to better tell the stories of our objects.

    The comparison to Steve Jobs in one of the comments is apt, but not because he showed us an “object” when he came on stage, but because he told us a story about how that object would reshape our lives. Watch the 30 second TV ad for the newest iPhone 4s: This ad doesn’t tell us anything about the object (the new phone); it tells us a dozen stories about how the object will change our lives. Other cell phone makers will tell you about screen size or memory capacity or network speed, much like the old fashioned hand-typed exhibit label, bits of information, most of which has little meaning to us.

    Apple connects with us emotionally. For our objects to be meaningful, we need to mine them for their emotionally-resonant stories.

    I was talking about this once at a conference and had a staff member come up to me afterwards to tell me his story. he worked at a Jewish museum where one of the artifacts in the collection was a tennis racket. How ludicrously incongruous is that? Until you hear the story about the boy who was given the tennis racket as a farewell gift from his parents as he headed off to summer camp in the US. It turned out that he never saw his parents again. He was sent off from Germany in 1939 and they died in the Holocaust.

    Listen to a really good historic house tour and the guide is not talking this chair or that painting, he or she is talking about the people who lived in the house and why these things mattered to them.

    Not every tennis racket has that meaningful a story, but as we work to make history museums more meaningful to our constituents, we need to get beyond the names and dates, provenance and places, and find the stories that tell us why these things really matter.


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