An Ideal World: A Tiered System for our Collections

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

Trevor Jones

Trevor Jones

I think most of us would agree that our collections would look much different if we were building them today, but the fact is that we are both blessed and burdened by our institutions’ collecting history. The big question remains what to do about it. Unfortunately with the professionalization of museums, we’ve both explicitly and implicitly advanced the concept that all artifacts in our collections are worthy of the same high standard of care. Professional standards make no distinction between caring for artifacts with provenance and those without, and do not clearly authorize institutions to use artifacts in ways that best fit their mission. In some cases the idea of universal “best practices” has become both a crutch to support what we’ve always done (we exist primarily to preserve things) and a stick to beat others who want to use artifacts in innovative ways (doing that would violate best practices!). In my opinion artifacts are a means to an end and we cannot be held hostage by them.

Paradoxically museums need to do a better job of working together to avoid duplicating collections efforts while at the same time relaxing standards to allow individual institutions the latitude to create a standard of collections care that suits their institution and its mission.

In my ideal world, I would create a tiered system for our collections that would look something like this:

  • Pieces with great provenance and connections to national, regional and statewide stores
  • Pieces with great provenance and connections to local stories
  • Pieces with weak provenance, but illustrate compelling themes
  • Pieces with weak provenance, but may difficult to borrow from other institutions
  • Pieces with no provenance
  • Pieces that do not fit our collecting mission

I would prefer to explicitly focus our precious time and money on the top tiers and eliminate or repurpose the bottom tiers entirely. In my ideal world I would be able to easily borrow common artifacts from other museums, and we would spend more time and money caring for and interpreting a smaller and more useful collection. I recognize the practical challenges in this approach, but it’s something I’d like to see the profession work toward in the years to come.

About the author:
Trevor Jones is the Director of Museum Collections & Exhibitions at the Kentucky Historical Society.

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