What do museums do to objects?

Jody JoyJody Joy is Senior Curator (Archaeology) at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.  This is the text of a seminar he gave on 14 November 2014, as part of the Art and Science of Curation seminar series.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/176691938″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]  

Slide1   The question I have been asked to consider in this presentation is what do museums do to objects? My immediate reaction to this was that’s obvious, they store and display artefacts. Unpacking these initial thoughts they were generated from my own view that museums keep and display objects as stores of knowledge and as a means of communication of that knowledge to the public. I don’t think this is a particularly controversial perspective but it is clearly seen through the lens of a professional museum curator.





As Robin has asked me for, I quote, 20 minutes of provocation, in this presentation I have decided to take a different perspective that takes into account some of the many consequences for the object when it is incorporated into a museum collection. This viewpoint is very much informed by discussions last term during the Thinking About Things seminars run through the Material Culture Lab in the Division of Archaeology by John Robb, Liz DeMarrais and Sheila Kohring, which considered the perspective of an ethics for material culture. It also draws on Nick Thomas’s observation in his paper ‘The Museum as Method’ that the museum is not only an institution or a collection but also a method or a kind of activity; that the seemingly mundane activities of museum work may have complicated consequences in terms of public exhibition. In this presentation I will try to show how museum activities may have complicated consequences for museum objects.


Slide3 Four outcomes or effects of the museum on objects came to mind that I will focus on in this presentation. The first is the tendency through display and a focus of study to fetishize or privilege some objects over others. This creates an artificial hierarchy of value, which can be based on financial worth, aesthetic judgments or a curatorial assessment of value in terms of communicating specific information. Second and clearly linked to the first are the seemingly forgotten majority, those objects in museum stores. What is the role of an object in a museum store and why should these objects be kept at great expense? Third is the effect of modern conservation techniques and ideas. When considered from an alternative perspective these can be seen as an attempt to halt time. Is this ultimately for some objects a losing battle and how should museums view this looking forward? Finally, and perhaps most significantly is the process of accessioning, which has the effect of resetting the biography of the object making it a very different kind of thing as it becomes part of a museum collection. Should museum objects be set apart from others simply because they have been assimilated into a collection? What about those objects on the margins such as objects in museums that that for whatever reason are unregistered?



The British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 objects is a very obvious example of my first point that through the museum method some objects become fetishized or privileged over others. These objects have their own dedicated website, a bestselling book has been written about them, and there is a museum map directing you to their location in the British Museum.   The project has its genesis I think with the BM tag line of ‘a museum of the world for the world’; here institutional rhetoric is directly reflected in a wider project. But the selection process of these objects was very interesting and illustrates some the points I want to make about the effects of museum activities on objects.



There are some very obvious objects that were included in the list such as the Rosetta Stone and the Sutton Hoo Helmet.





Slide6 Other objects on the list by contrast such as the Moche Warrior pot were selected probably because they are good or representative pieces of a particular point of discussion or region of the world. Some seemingly quite mundane or ordinary objects such as the credit card from the United Arab Emirates were also chosen in an attempt I think for inclusivity in what is quite an exclusive list. Through everyday curatorial practice and completeness therefore some objects on the list were elevated into the limelight. It would be interesting to see how many objects that made the list would be there should the same group of individuals who created it have met a year earlier or a year later.



Slide7Many museums display less than 1% of the objects in their collections. The selection of objects suitable for display can be based on value judgements of aesthetic or monetary worth but the process is also unpredictable. Selection may be based on the fact that an object is a good or representative piece, it could also just tell a good story, be associated with a notable individual, or be valued simply because it is unusual.




Slide8The object is then given a label. Does the label ‘hand axe knapped around fossil shell. Palaeolithic (about 400,000 years ago). Elvedon, Suffolk’ do this object on display in the Cambridge Gallery at MAA justice? It provides a description, timeframe and the geographical location of discovery but what is a handaxe? What were the events that led to its creation? Did the knapper chance upon the fossil shell and create the axe around it as it appears? If so how did they feel about the shell? How did that alter the future life of the axe? It would be impossible to convey all of this in an object label but instead this can be drawn out in gallery talks and publications. Nevertheless, this label is the identification given to the object and the one that the majority of museum visitors will take away.

The effects of display on the object are immediate and significant. In terms of relative value, display objects are set apart from objects in stores. Their value is emphasised as they are set behind glass to be viewed and admired and members of the public are watched over by gallery attendants. Where objects are displayed alongside others it is a moment of what Nick Thomas calls juxtaposition. “Whatever “it” may be, one has to ask what it goes with, what it may be place in a series with, or what it may be opposed to” (Thomas 2010, 8). Objects on display are also likely to be better researched and documented. Consequently their importance becomes self-reinforcing, they take up a disproportionate amount of curatorial time and they are more in demand from researchers and other institutions wanting to borrow them for exhibitions. Even when displays are changed and an object is removed from display, in my experience the marker ‘former display object’ still carries weight when decisions are made about it. For example, if something was formerly on display it is often offered as an object suitable for loan to other institutions.


Slide9 In summary, what I want to make clear is that the selection of objects for display is not at all straightforward or obvious and is a result of histories of display and the unpredictable decisions of individual curators. The other point I want to stress is that the decisions made in terms of whether or not to display an object have consequences for how objects are perceived and their future biographies as display objects are more likely to be better researched and more frequently requested for loan to other institutions.



Slide10As museums look to increase their revenue another class of object has grown up: the touring loan object. The current financial situation has forced many museums to consider new ways of generating income. One of these is to sell exhibitions to other museums or institutions. This has led to the creation of major exhibitions that can tour the world for many years. An example is ‘The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece’ which is a travelling exhibition developed by curators at the British Museum from a 2008 exhibition on the ancient Olympic games. It comprises over 100 objects, including 10 pieces of free standing sculpture that have been on exhibition in other museums for over five years. The lives of these objects consist of periods of display interspersed with long periods crated up in boxes ready to be transported to the next venue.


Slide11 I now want to turn to the museum objects that are not on display. What does the museum do to them and what do objects not on display do? The answer that many museum curators would provide to this question, including me, is that museum stores are dynamic assets.  By this I mean that by encouraging scientists, researchers and students to look at collections they can be re-interpreted and provide new insights. I would also argue that the objects held in museums are every bit as valuable as new discoveries, which have traditionally driven research in archaeology. I can give a couple of examples from my own research.



Slide12For example, recently I conducted a project that examined the 60 or so known cauldrons from Iron Age Britain and Ireland. During this research I looked at the vast majority of cauldrons held in museums and through an examination of use wear, as well as evidence for repair and damage I was able to make new statements about the use and importance of cauldrons in Iron Age Britain.




Slide13In another piece of research involving scientists from the British Museum. Through various non-invasive techniques such as scanning electron microscopy, as well as some destructive techniques to examine metal, we were able to show that Iron Age torcs were made using techniques that were previously thought to have been Roman technologies. The vast majority of these objects were not on display. Indeed had they been we would never have been allowed to conduct destructive analysis.




Slide14Nick Thomas has also argued that discovering an object in the stores allows us to question current interpretations and question contemporary or historic preconceived notions. These aren’t objects that have been lost or gone missing, rather they could be objects that have been in the stores for long periods but have not been noticed before by curators or they haven’t paid them much attention. An example of this is a current exhibition curated by Julie Adams and other members of the Pacific Presences team titled ‘Magic and Memory: Paul Montague in New Caledonia’. This is a small display featuring some of the collections of a Cambridge zoologist who carried out research in New Caledonia in 1913. He also brought back around 200 artefacts that he documented and researched at MAA. He was killed in in 1917 during the First World War. After his death the Montague collection was not lost or unknown but rather it was ‘waiting’, ready for reinterpretation.

But what are the implications of this on the object? If objects in museum stores are so-called dynamic assets or objects for re-discovery and re-interpretation their role, counter to objects on display, is to remain dormant until they are re-discovered. In a sense if they remain intact but they are not really thought about they are more valuable because they provide fresh information to enliven or contradict current interpretations or preconceived notions. If museum collections are seen to accumulate histories over time it also allows researchers or visitors to respond to those collections from multiple perspectives drawn over that period.


Slide15 I now want to turn to my third area of discussion the effect of the practice of museum conservation on objects. One of the purposes of a museum is to preserve its objects for the future. Of course objects are damaged in museums and through museum practice but this is mainly accidental rather than intentional.

Modern conservation methods and techniques no longer seek to restore objects so that they are complete or look like they did when they were first made but they do attempt to stabilise the object. Dirt is cleaned away, corrosion is removed and objects are (ideally) stored in special cut outs in drawers in conditions suited to the materials they are manufactured from. The aim is to halt time so that the object as far as possible stays the same as when it was first accessioned. This is probably achievable for some objects made of durable materials as long as the conditions are stable.

Iron is a different matter. Take the example of the Kirkburn Sword, an Iron Age sword from a grave in East Yorkshire dating to around 300 BC, which is on display in the Iron Age Gallery at the British Museum. It is a complicated object. The hilt for example is made of 37 separate pieces of iron bronze and horn. The copper-alloy scabbard is also beautifully decorated with a complicated curvilinear design. But the structural integrity of the sword and scabbard is being undermined by the iron blade, which continues to corrode inside the scabbard despite the best efforts of curators and conservators.

This problem is not unique to the Kirkburn Sword. There are many objects made of iron that continue to flake and corrode. The corrosion of archaeological iron objects after excavation can be very rapid indeed and is caused by the presence of chloride ions that accelerate corrosion and within a very short time can lead to the complete destruction of objects. Dry storage conditions can halt this process and a number of chloride extraction techniques are being developed to try and ameliorate this process. But as Tim Ingold recently stated, “despite the best efforts of curators and conservators, no object lasts forever. Materials always and inevitably win out over materiality in the long term” (Ingold 2007, 10).

While I am by no means suggesting that curators should let objects like the Kirkburn Sword rust away, what I do find interesting is the apparent contradiction between the necessity to stop physical change to the object against the changing knowledge of the objects in collections, which is especially apparent in university museums. It also seems contradictory that there are well established archaeological techniques of analysis such as examination of use-wear that are reliant on damage or changes that occur to objects as they age such as polishing and repair, yet as soon as an object enters the museum a new set of values are applied and as far as is possible aging of the objects is halted.


Slide16In reaction to the mind vs. body dichotomy, much recent work in material culture studies has stressed the important role of physical contact with materials. Objects were made to be used and handled. This viewpoint has to some extent been recognised by museums through object handling sessions and object handling desks. But returning to an issue already raised, the objects selected for handling are often unregistered or their archaeological context was not recorded. Objects made from robust materials are also preferentially selected for object handling and we can see again a hierarchy of objects according to curatorial and conservation values: those that are too important to be handled by the public vs. objects assessed to be of lesser importance, or at a lower risk of damage, that they can handle.

Returning to thoughts concerning an ethics of material culture, in the course of their normal life objects are physically changed through usage and damage and these signs of age feed back into how the object is perceived. Ageing and damage is therefore a key aspect of the life of an object and halting or stopping this process could be viewed as running counter to the natural course of events.


Slide17Signs of age and damage are also markers of the inherent fragility of artefacts can in Stephen Greenblatt’s terms add resonance to an object: “…a quality of artefacts that museums obviously dread, their precariousness. But though it is perfectly reasonable for museums to protect their objects (and I would not wish it any other way), precariousness is a rich source of resonance” (Greenblatt 1991, 43).




Slide18 I now want to turn to my fourth area of discussion, the importance of the accession of museum objects. I think the process and moment of accession cannot be overemphasised in its importance. This is a performance every bit as significant in the life of an object as the role of a cauldron at a feast or a sword in a battle.

The object enters the museum by being donated, acquired or by some other means. The displacement of museum objects from their original locations is something that tends to be obscured through the method of the museum, especially when it comes to old finds. This is because other information such as who collected it is often given equal prominence to the original context of the object.

Once it has been accepted by the museum it awaits registration typically by a curator. It is assigned a number and is entered into the museum register. In the past this was a physical register. Today most museums have some kind of digital recording system.

Typically basic information is recorded during registration including:

    • A basic description including dimensions and weight
    •  A photograph and/or line drawing
    • Acquisition details
    •  How old is it?
    • Who made it?
    •  Context
    • Further information about find context
    • Bibliographic information

Once the object has been registered it is typically assigned a location for permanent storage and is marked with its accession number for identification purposes. As an accessioned artefact decisions made about it now ultimately lie with the museum trustees or museum board, but in practice everyday decisions are made by curators, conservators and collections assistants. Depending on museum policy gloves must be worn to handle the artefact and to study or examine it requires special permission. In terms of ownership the majority of museum objects are not owned by individuals, they are held in trust for the benefit of the public. In essence therefore unlike the original purpose of many objects, museum objects are supposed to be viewed and admired not owned. A market for many museum artefacts often exists but once an object is accessioned it becomes inalienable. Even if a museum is in deep financial crisis it is expected to hold on to its collections at all costs.


Slide19 That’s why many people were so shocked to see Northampton Borough Council sell the 4,000 year old Sekhemka limestone statue earlier this year for £15.76 million and why Northampton Museum and Art Gallery lost its accreditation. As Pomian stated, “unlike private collectors, museums do not seek to keep works out of circulation for a limited time, but for always” (1990, 9).




Slide20Once they are accessioned museum objects also become part of a collections. If they were part of collections amassed by individuals before they were acquired by a museum they also become associated with the actions of those collectors, their individual interests and passions and the world and time in which they were collected. The gathering of the collections of individual collectors in museums means that museum objects become enmeshed in these complicated collections histories. They become related to particular individuals and they are linked and associated with other objects that, setting aside the fact they belong to the same collection, you may never have otherwise connected those objects. What I am trying to say is that the Idea that a collection is a mass of individual objects is simply not true. A collection is a relational assemblage that can be extremely complicated in terms of its formation and associations and it is susceptible to division and amalgamation.

The effects of the information recorded at the time of accession can also be felt long after accession in other ways. They can be grouped together with other objects recorded to be of the same type, or with the same donor. Further relations can be made through being mentioned in the same academic texts and so on.


Slide21In conclusion, I have tried to question what the method of the museum does to objects. First and foremost, I think the society of museum objects is an unequal one. Through acts such as inclusion in special exhibitions and displays, certain objects are privileged over others. Objects placed in stores on the other hand are kept in a state of stasis, ready for re-discovery and re-interpretation. You must be inducted into this society. Incorporation into the society of museum objects also requires a process of reassessment or resetting and certain sacrifices must be made. The biography and life of the object before induction is set to one side and a new set of values is adopted. Certain object rights are taken away. You can no longer be handled unless gloves are used. You become inalienable. You cannot be owned except in trust and you can no longer be bought or sold. Finally, it is also a society with an excellent healthcare plan, through modern conservation techniques immortality is not so much guaranteed but life is very much extended.


Slide22I wanted to end this presentation with a consideration of what museums and objects do to people. From masks inspired by one of the Star Carr headpieces…





… Slide23 to weekend drawing classes on museum objects,







…the generation of poetry and even tattoos, albeit temporary ones.






Slide25I leave you with this perspective by Phoebe on a prehistoric drinking vessel from Bottisham: ‘My mug belongs to a chief. He drank very fine wines’.   Thank you.

2 thoughts on “What do museums do to objects?”

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking. Thank you for putting these ideas forward. I was particularly interested in the section about damaged objects and our relationship to the changed state of the value of objects once damage has occurred. The change of use and Percieved value of an object once it is accessioned into a collection is also something we often debate at our museum. Thanks and enjoyed the words.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.