Sunday, August 9, 2009

Is the Good Stuff Really Stored Away?

On several of my local and community history projects lately, we've had conversations about whether objects in the collections support a deeper, more inclusive view of history. And in at least one case we concluded that although the historical society has a large collection, rich in some areas, that it was weak in others and it made some interpretive approaches very difficult. I've often spent time on projects wishing for museum collections that included work clothes or other items to no avail.

At the same time that museum professionals wish for more inclusive, diverse collections, we're finding that our communities want more access to our collections. For instance, the Ohio Historical Society's recently announced revamping is based, in part, on the fact that the public wants more access to the collections--a conclusion based on three years of study.

I'm sitting on two sides of the fence here. On the one hand, I've seen plenty of collections that are virtually meaningless--uncataloged, poorly cared for, and representative only of the fact that no one knew how to say no to a donor. What would it mean if museums just threw open their doors and allowed access to all their "stuff?" Would people really be interested, or would they just wonder why we were so picky about providing access to it?

On the other hand, I also like access to collections and always appreciate models that allow me a chance to explore. Most recently, I visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum including the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, which, from my perspective, did a great job in providing visitors with easy, engaging access to collections. Online access to collections is an amazing thing--but there's still nothing like seeing the objects in person.

Here's a few images from my visit.

This is a very simple interactive at the information desk for the Luce Foundation Center where you got to select which item should go in the case. Interesting choices, interesting explanations, no electronics, and it made me check out the case in greater detail when I reached it.

This interactive helped place George Catlin's works in context. It is placed between two cases filled with Catlin's work and the map, images and audio excerpts from diaries gave the interested visitor a much deeper experience.

How simple and how useful this label is! Just a simple demystification of what those numbers mean.

Except for open collections storage, I'm of the opinion that drawers are often not used very often by visitors, but this young woman spent a long time looking here. So perhaps I'm wrong.

Simple to use computers, the accession label explanation shown above, and pencils and paper to write down information--all of which makes the space easy to use.

What questions might museums ask when they're planning open access to collections--here's some I might have:
  • What are the real strengths of our collection?
  • What do those strengths imply about our community, past and present?
  • How can we demystify our work?
  • How can we encourage surprising connections?
  • How can visitors share their own connections with others?
  • What can we do to encourage and shape our current collecting efforts?
Top: Phrenological heads from the Science Museum, London

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