Collections: To Be, or Not to Be

The role of collections in museums is changing.   While museums used to focus primarily on collecting, this focus on objects has changed drastically, at times disappeared almost completely.  What role should a museum’s collection’s play?

Steven Conn points out museums were once founded on the belief  “visitors would receive an education by visually engaging with objects;” graphics and educational programming were introduced as faith in the educational capacity of objects faded. (i)  He suggests museums should move away from “antiquarian concern” about objects, instead using objects to connect people with a sense of place; objects should help the visitor “think about where they are past, present and future.”(ii)

Dr. Gretchen Sullivan Sorin believes historic houses are responsible for engaging their visitors and communities; rooms should be “dynamic,” “change often,” and not thought of as permanent installations. (iii)

According to Bruce MacLeish of Newport Restorations, objects still have an important role in interpreting history. He says museums should create interesting educational program that excites people, then chose artifacts that pull the visitor into the program.(iv)

Rainey Tisdale says people see objects as giving museums authenticity and that visitors want authentic objects and a source they can trust.  This is source is the museum. (v)

Burt Logan of the Ohio Historical Society believes objects should enhance an exhibit, stating the education center at Mount Vernon has an exhibit that, although objectless, gives the visitor an understanding of Washington’s life; the visitor then goes across the hall to see artifacts.  This approach “presents information in such a way that families and others find it engaging.” (ii)

How is your museum using collections to engage visitors?



(i) Steven Conn, Do Museum’s Need Objects? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 25-26.

(ii) “Wexner Center: Do Museums Still Need Objects?” The Ohio Channel, accessed November 8, 2011,

(iii) Dr. Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, “What Do We Do With All of This Stuff?” Historic House Trust 6 (2011), 3-6.

(iv) Interview with Bruce MacLeish, Director of Collections, New Restorations, November 8, 2011

(v) Rainey Tisdale, “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?” History News (Summer 2011), 19,24.


About njdemarco

CGP Grad Student
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2 Responses to Collections: To Be, or Not to Be

  1. The Naval War College Museum, which is located on a naval base with restricted physical access, initiated a blog that is primarily centered on objects in the museum collections. Hosted by Google-owned Blogger, the blog has significantly raised the public profile of the museum. By blogging regularly about artifacts, often in connection with more widely-known historical events, people, or places–thousands of visitors searching terms such as “Dwight Eisenhower,” “torpedo,” and “Revolutionary War” are clicking on blog articles and discovering that there is a Naval War College Museum in Newport, Rhode Island. They learn that it has a Facebook page, it is open to the public, and it has a story to tell. In addition to sharing rarely exhibited artifacts with a larger and broader segment of the public, writing about artifacts has enriched relations with artifact donors, increased research requests on museum collections, and has been a positive way to encourage community support since local volunteers research and write most articles.

  2. njdemarco says:

    That is an excellent way to attract new visitors to your museum. Rainey Tisdale quotes the Reach Advisors study that showed visitors enjoyed looking at objects on websites. When visitors viewed objects online, they wanted to visit the institutions to see the item in person. This is intimately entwined with the viewers quest for authenticity; they told interviewers that finding authenticity was important in the present day. The results of a study of museum professionals showed that many believed online collections enhanced the visitors experience, further supporting the idea that online collections help attendance.

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