Do Museums Still Need Objects?

Conn, Steven. 2010. Do Museums Still Need Objects? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
reviewed by Haidy Geismar, NYU
Conn is a historian of museums, whose other books include the influential Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (2000, U Chicago Press). In this book, he surveys the current “predicament of culture” for contemporary museums. For Conn, many of the current problems and politics within museums are focused on a destabilization of the role of objects and collections in exhibitions and the constitution of knowledge of the world.
This is more of a collection of essays than a sustained argument about objects in museums, although each chapter suggests a “loss” of objects in some way, if not a physical loss (as in the case of repatriation) than an interpretive loss in which the object is increasingly secondary to political agenda, commercial interest, educational reform and so on. Chapters focus on repatriation (especially in the context of NAGPRA); the framing of objects from Asia in US Museums; the growing focus on youth in the display and educational strategies of Science museums; a case-study of the “birth and death” of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum and a final chapter assessing the place museums continue to hold in the consolidation of “civic identities”.
This is a good introduction to the contemporary culture of museums in the US and the ways in which museum histories and legacies negotiate with cultural politics and other pressing concerns. It surveys this field providing a number of different examples, drawing on many disciplines and kinds of museums in an accessible way.
The rest of my comment is not really concerned with Conn’s book at all but is more a riff on the promise of its title (it’s a snow day in NYC so I have some time to meander). This is not a book that really engages philosophically with the question of whether museums still need objects, and indeed what those objects might be. Little attention is paid to the generation of new kinds of collection and the presence of new kinds of object in museums – the reference point for a museum object is, following Conn’s area of expertise, the collections of the 19th century and their legacy in the present.
My following comments are therefore not a criticism of this book but suggestions for further discussion, hopefully in the comments of this blog! I would have been interested to see what a historian (rather than an archaeologist, anthropologist or biologist) might say about developing a historian’s methodology for understanding the changing role of “objects” in museums. Conn surveys the tensions that objects raised for anthropologists, for instance, in the US trying to apprehend culture (in terms of their seeming stasis, their seeming timelessness, their muteness, and increasingly their presence ‘out’ of communities and in museums). It seems to me that the historian may face a similar epistemological issue, and in fact there is a similar history of academic historians moving away from the museum, uncomfortable with the uncertainty of object interpretation and issues of context. At the same time, the public history of the US has largely been told through objects in museums, historic houses, and historical societies, as Handler’s excellent study of Colonial Williamsburg describes. What tools can the historian bring to bear that might complement the ways in which anthropologists have grappled with cultural knowledge, or historical knowledge, in object form?
I would emphasise a certain lacunae in the book’s survey of the relationship between museum and anthropology, the references to which are somewhat dated. As many of us are well aware, there has in recent years been a (very very small by the standards of the discipline, but nonetheless important) renaissance in an avant-garde museum anthropology, which is collaborative, consultative and creative and generative of many new kinds of museum objects, as well as actively engaging with historical collections, recognising their significance to multiple constituencies, thinking about repatriation in an expansive manner (eg. digital repatriation, which whilst problematic, is quite different to the return of singular artifacts). For just one recent summary, see Anthony Shelton’s interview in a recent issue of Anthropology Today recounting his own experience in museums and the innovative work of the UBC Museum of Anthropology.
In order to understand objects in history we need to understand how uses of objects in museums change in time, and internalize versions and visions of history. Each museum age has its own kind of object, and uses these objects to forge its own kind of knowledge and relationship between scholarship, curator, and audience and so forth. However, Webb Keane made an important point in a post on this blog reviewing the volume Thinking Through Things in which he comments that the relative, culturally specific, view of interpretation (described by the authors of that volume as “multiple ontologies”) would surely foreclose on unmediated understanding the meaning of objects over time as well as between places. How would a historian respond to these issues? What place can objects have in a view of history as an ongoing process that makes and remakes the past and the present.
In talking about contemporary repatriation debates in the US, Conn aligns himself with conservative commentators on these issues who see repatriation as dealing narrowly with debates over ownership and private property, ideologies of the commons versus ideologies of exceptional entitlement. These views take a narrow rather than expansive definition of objects, in which objects are either mutely exploited by interpretive communities or are monolithic in the ways in which they materialise such values as cultural commons, world or universal museums, and even art.
I don’t have the perfect interpretive answer to present here, but I’m starting to wonder if we all might would be better served to think about museum’s subjects (putting for a moment the imbalance of power that the term subject suggests, although there are similar problems of power inherent to the term object, epitomized by the colloquial use of the word ‘objectification’) and their relationship to form or materiality? We tend to think about subjects AS objects in museums. How about thinking of objects AS subjects?
On the first page of their introduction to the volume, Thinking through things, Henare, Holbraad and Wastell ask, “What would an artefact-oriented anthropology look like if it were not about material culture?”. Here, they reiterate a narrow view of what material culture is – no wonder given the 19th century roots of the category and also take a stab at “material culture studies”. It’s in fact a similar question to “do museums still need objects?” Holbraad, Henare and Wastell mean how can we think of artefacts without evoking the genealogy of material culture (assuming material culture to be a value laden concept rather than a synonym for artefacts), Conn is really asking Do museum’s need these nineteenth century collections? Both questions are provocative dead ends… Instead of leading to direct answers, both questions lead us to rethink how we define what objects are, what is included in our definition, and what is a legacy from earlier ways of conceptualizing the material world and assuming knowledge from it. Useful questions, but perhaps it’s best to put semantics aside and focus on documenting how ideas about, and attitudes to, the object world have changed.

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One Response to Do Museums Still Need Objects?

  1. Maria Usk. PhD Candidate. Department of Cultural Studies, Tallinn University, Estonia July 11, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    Puppet Art – A Laboratory for Material Culture Studies
    I would like to carry on H. Geismar’s discussion about the object world. The main question that has aroused in the end of the review by Geismar is how to document the process of the development of ideas about, and attitudes to the object world?
    At first I would rather go on with the discussion for finding another way of how we could follow the ontology of objects turning into ontology of subjects than giving precise answers for documenting issues. Later it would also be possible to document the process in a theory. It would be difficult to rely upon fixed methods while examining a process. Hence I would suggest considering a living practice – the puppet art phenomenon – for ‘explaining’ objects and for finding a kind of laboratory for material culture studies.
    Object-indulgence highlights puppetry from all other performing art forms and this is the identifying issue for puppetry to represent a kind of lab. Puppet art as a living practice is a vehicle for expressing time and space issues through materiality. The purpose of puppet art lies in expressing the whole spectrum of ideas, events and emotions through things by modeling the world.
    Equally to the statement in the article about history, one could say that a puppet art phenomenon is a place of ongoing processes that makes and remakes the past and the present. The puppet’s immortal body overcomes time and space issues. Objects (puppets) as representatives of life entail both – past and future that is performed in present by a puppeteer. Following Woodward, the trajectories and biographies of objects are not just related to their commodity status, but to more complex meanings and interpretations given to them by individuals, restricted taste communities (Woodward 2007). Puppets as objects are immortal in the sense of biology, but mortal in the sense of the puppet’s biography – they are culturally alive. The puppeteer is therefore the ‘in-betweener’ or the translator of the object world.
    The dissection of the ontology of a puppet role reveals aspects of the development of ideas about the object world. It is possible to show how ideas about the object world have changed through puppets as objects. A puppet represents a legacy from the material world. A puppet performance gives us the opportunity to investigate the biography of things that Kopytoff (1986) and Appadurai (1986) describe as the qualities bundled together in any object. Appadurai’s idea about objects having `social lives` or `biographies` is also an important angle in investigating objects of museums (Woodward 2007; Appadurai, 1986).
    There is a suggestion about taking objects as subjects in the review. Objects use to remain autonomous and create meanings only through relationships to the surrounding that turns objects into subjects. The change from an object to a subject takes place undetected and seems to be self-explanatory. Puppet performance allows us to observe the process of people-object relations in different contexts and gives us the opportunity to investigate the history through the biography of things.
    Puppet art entails something additional to material culture studies serving as a connecting link between routine and art life, and also between commodities and art objects. Puppetry explains how to understand the meaning of objects over time as well as between places. Puppet art offers a possibility to interpret material things to understand meanings of things within our society and to explain how things will count as subjects. The meaning of objects reveals through a commingled ontology of subjectification in a puppet performance. Puppet art theory can answer the questions about how to think of objects AS subjects, how to explain the structure of relationships in meaning-making, how to show different attitudes to the object world. Hence puppetry helps to reveal the process of the development of ideas of the object world.
    Puppet art would be an ‘all-time’ way of explaining about the development of the object world generally and also in certain contexts, for example in a museum. Museums are inclining towards performing arts in several aspects – films, interactive possibilities and live performances are part of museum culture nowadays.
    Reference Cited:
    Appadurai, A. (ed), (1986) ‘The Social Life of Things’. Cambridge, CUP.
    Kopytoff, I. (1986) The cultural biography of things. In Appadurai (ed), ‘The Social Life of Things. Cambridge, CUP.
    Woodward, I. (2007) Understanding Material Culture. London, Sage.

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