This past week, I went to a conference organised by Egham Museum about museum collections, because that’s the sort of rock and roll lifestyle I lead. All in all it was a pretty good day, and for me the most interesting part of it was the ‘de-accessioning workshop’. Put simply, the workshop highlighted the fact that many museum collections are full of objects which have little to no apparent historic value, providing several examples of the less glamorous items from Egham Museum’s collection. Whilst the focus of that talk was on why museums accession these items, in this week’s post I’m going to turn the issue on its head and ask why people donate these items in the first place, and furthermore whether it is a good thing for museums to accept them.
As anyone who has worked or volunteered in the museum sector can attest to, every once in a while you come across an item which makes you ask out loud, “why? Why would anyone ever think that this belongs in a museum of any sort?” For me, this moment came when I came across a painted wooden panel in such a state of disrepair that at first I thought it was rotting. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the panel’s poor condition was entirely due to neglect, both passive and active, by the museum, and that it was donated in pristine condition. Even if this was the case, I still have to question why somebody donated it. That day, I came across at least a dozen more panels with the exact same design, many of which were in better condition, which leads me to two possible conclusions. Firstly that the panel and its twelve brethren were part of a larger artistic and architectural masterpiece that I remain unaware of; or secondly (and what I suspect is more likely) that the panel was so common place and unremarkable that to continue to keep it is similar to suggesting that in the future we should preserve and cherish broken IKEA furniture, or a used IPod.
Whilst that rant was cathartic for me, I have somewhat digressed from my original question, namely why do people donate this stuff at all? Whilst it’s easy to put this down to people simply not wanting to throw stuff away, I think it runs deeper than that. If you look at a lot of the miscellaneous objects which accumulate in museum connections, many (if not all) of them are connected by the fact that they come from local institutions which are no longer in existence. Whilst this incredibly vague statement that can apply to almost any historical artefact, it also hints at the underlying reason these items were donated: the fear of change. Indeed, during the workshop it was highlighted that many of the case studies provided by Egham Museum were donated at a time when the High Street was in a state of decline, and local merchants and companies were going out of business. As such, local residents wanted to preserve as much of their past ways of life as they could, and the best way of doing that was via the museum collection.
This desire to preserve as much of the past as possible is understandable and, on first appearances, benign. After all, what’s the harm in trying to preserve the memory of local businesses or customs which are no longer with us? Indeed, as someone who waxed lyrical in his last post about the value of social history and preserving lesser known historical sites, you’d think that I’d be the first person to praise this kind of approach to preservation. To paraphrase the famous saying, today’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure; and we’re already seeing how things which would have once been dismissed as lacking in cultural or historical value, such as comics or video games, are now firmly established as objects worthy of study by contemporary critics and historians alike.
However, I am concerned that if a museum accepts anything and everything donated to it, it could encourage people to see the museum as a way to cling to the past in a completely uncritical way. Whilst it would be wrong to advocate an accessioning policy which required the donor to prove their item’s historical worth (ideally in front of a four person panel and a live studio audience on Saturday night prime time), to have a completely open accessioning policy is just as bad, as it encourages people to see the museum collection as a dumping ground for nostalgia, and the museum as an institution which is dedicated to preserving and protecting their idealised past, rather than encouraging people to reflect on the links between the past and the present.
Obviously, the above is something of an extreme example, and I’m sure that the majority, if not all, of the people who donate items to museums do so with entirely good and honest intentions. Similarly, I’m confident in saying that most museums do not fall into this trap, and that they encourage their visitors to engage with their displays in a critical fashion. However, it is an issue which I still feel is worth bearing in mind. Museums are one of the most important tools historians have in terms of communicating history to a broad public audience, and it would be a shame to see any one of them become little more than a den of sentimentality.