24 February 2014




The Objects Conservation Laboratory at the Museum of Fine Arts (source)

This weekend I was thinking about the interesting (to me, at least) dichotomy between museum objects as they would have appeared in their original contexts, how they appear in exhibitions and galleries, and how they appear in storage.

Corsets and shaping structures in their custom mounts (source)

In museums, objects are already de-contextualized, never really telling the whole story of what for and how they are used. We are then left with a documentary record which cannot truly reconstruct the structure of feeling, to use the words of Raymond Williams. However, museums do try to give their objects a history, a meaning and an original purpose.

This three-part corselette is supported with individual shaped mounts under each section (source)

Opposed to this is the storage of items, so practical but so far removed from original use and our conceptions of museum objects as "art" objects. The items are stuffed and supported by stark white polyethylene foam and acid free tissue paper and they are hung and arranged carefully to minimize stress. Often on shelves they reveal little of themselves or their former purpose. The object is concealed by utilitarian twill tape and boxes. In some cases they are stored in the way they were used, as with the corsets above, shaped around a semi-cylindrical object. This does not, I think, speak to original use.

This beaded “gaming” bag is stored upside down on a shaped and padded form, which gently holds the bag open with no pressure on any of the outer beaded surfaces (source)

Of course, logically we can assume objects are stored like this for their own good. Of course. They are stored in certain ways and in certain materials so that they can last longer; their degradation slowed down. However, of all the millions of objects that reside in museums only a small portion are ever on view (a statistic many of us have heard). My question, then, is what value or use do these objects provide or serve when kept perfectly preserved and in storage for most of their life? If they cannot be seen, for what purpose do museums expend such amounts of time and resources conserving these objects? Sort of a tree falling in the forest conundrum.

The ribbons on this pair of baby's shoes are rolled onto small tissue paper tubes to prevent creasing (source)

I have a great love of objects as they are undoubtedly interesting and informative, but I wonder if saving everything is a sustainable practice. What are your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. I am glad to see this discussion here today as tomorrow in Curatorial practice we will discuss issues tied to sensorial identities of objects in relation to the obsessions of Western institutions to hold onto objects and collect and preserve. It is obvious that many objects (Western or non-Western) are not made in order to be preserved. Is then the responsibility of museums who claim to work in the shadow of authentic cultural production, to also allow some objects to disappear or to deteriorate?