This week I spent a bit of time in the collections storage of a local museum. It doesn't matter which one, because I know I can find the same issues expressed in this discouraging sign almost anywhere; and particularly in local history museums here in the United States. But then I realized how little was known about these collections, about how many items have wiggled their way into history collections because they are "old," or "maybe old" or "someone here might have used it" or just because, one day, someone left it at the front desk.
The whole experience was a great reminder that we all should be paying attention to and participating in the Active Collections project, an important effort from my smart and passionate colleagues Rainey Tisdale and Trevor Jones.
Here's an extensive excerpt from the project's manifesto:
Millions of artifacts in museum collections across the country are not actively supporting the institutions that steward them. Museums of all types are experiencing this problem, but it is particularly entrenched in history museums. Most history museums possess thousands of poorly maintained, inadequately cataloged, and underutilized artifacts. Instead of being active assets, these lazy artifacts drain vital resources. Multiple studies have assessed the problem of collections preservation, and each has proposed providing museums more money to process and preserve artifacts. But there’s little point in preserving collections if they don’t actively support the mission. We believe collections must either advance the mission or they must go.
Collections are expensive. The time and money required to catalog and store objects ties up valuable resources that could be used elsewhere. Fortunately, museum professionals are recognizing that significant portions of their collections aren’t pulling their weight, and attitudes are changing. But in the absence of a coherent philosophy or way forward, changing opinions have not yet led to changes in practice. Therefore the problem continues to get worse with each passing year. In addition, professional standards, funding models, and museum training programs still primarily support the idea that all collections are equally important, and that owning collections is as important as effectively using them. We believe a new model for thinking about collections is needed.
Collections are important to history museums. Artifacts are a deeply powerful way to connect with what it means to be human and to understand the past, present and future. In his compelling book A History of the World in 100 Objects Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, argues that “telling history through things is what museums are for.” Museums are uniquely positioned to use things to tell meaningful stories—but to do so they need to collect the right artifacts and make good use of them. We believe that artifacts can be powerful tools—touchstones filled with meaning and connection—but only when used effectively.
If museums existed simply to preserve things, the best way to save them would be to put the entire collection in an enormous freezer and never take anything out. But museums don’t just preserve things; they also use them to inspire, enlighten, and connect. Every day museums balance the twin needs of preservation and access. Every time a piece is used by a researcher or is exhibited, the decision has been made to shorten its lifespan. We weigh these decisions against the rarity of the piece, its condition, and how important it is to the institution. How is it that we distinguish degrees of significance when we deal with individual objects and yet we are paralyzed into inaction when we look at an entire collection? Major conservation surveys and statewide risk assessments assume that all collections are equally valuable and are worthy of the same standard of care. We believe some objects support the mission better than others—not based on monetary value or rarity, but based on the stories they tell and the ideas they illuminate. The ones that provide the most public value should get the largest share of our time and resources.They have a wish list and are asking for your crazy ideas. Check out the site, share it with your colleagues and your board of directors; start a conversation on Facebook; and consider that, if we could begin to think of our collections in this way, that sign above, which only makes our hearts and minds feel like the below, could go away--and we could make our museums passionate, meaningful places at the center of our communities. Many thanks to Rainey and Trevor for bringing this forward--and now, all of you, let's get this conversation really started!