Objects, Yay or Nay?

On a recent trip to Washington D.C., our class saw the exhibit, Can You Walk Away? at Lincoln’s Cottage. The exhibit raised awareness on modern-day slavery by using taped testimonies from survivors. The exhibit was compelling and easily captured everyone’s attention, and no object were needed in the exhibit.

So the question of the day is, do museums still need objects? In the past, museums were viewed as collecting institutions, today they are education centers. The focus on collecting objects has become less of a priority for some museums in recent decades, leaving many collections in the dark and unknown to the public. So what should we do with unwanted or unused collections?

Erin Richardson, who believes that museums still need objects, points out that less established museums may lack the resources to have own a collection that they may need. As a solution, museums, who lack collections or objects, could request objects from other institutions and then use those loaned objects in their exhibits. Not only will it take the object out of the dark storage facility, but in return the loaned objects will get seen by more people, and this will increase the public and other institutions’ awareness of the types of collections that are available or hidden at certain museums.

With that said, how would you feel about lending your own objects to another institution? Should museums have a more organized system for lending objects or making more collections known to other institutions.

Jeanette Sanchez


1. Richardson, Erin. Interview by Jeanette Sanchez. 18 November 2013.


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4 Responses to Objects, Yay or Nay?

  1. radtkedrew says:

    I think we should consider the possibility that the testimonies from survivors and allies are, in fact, objects. Museums collect them and store them, much in the same way they collect and store physical artifacts. They are likewise open to interpretation and hold a great deal of meaning for the people who see them.

    But to your larger point, it again comes down to a question of sharing authority. In the age of museums branching out and leaving some interpretation up to the beholder, what use do we have for collections of objects that will never be seen by anyone? Museums continue to struggle with the issue of identity. Are our collections simply repositories or do they serve a large purpose? And if so, what does that look like?

  2. Rick says:

    I think this idea is very viable so long as the museums have a clearly defined policy with their shared storage and are all staffed with competent curators. A museum that hopes to enter into one of these sharing arrangements should check the inner workings of a potential partner before they agree to loan their objects, just to make sure the artifacts will be in good hands.

    Other solutions might be plausible as well. If the museum focuses on a specific community–an ethnic group or locality, for instance–then it might use object acquisition or deaccession in a participatory manner. A museum with a shortage of objects can turn to the community for artifacts to use in a particular project or exhibit. This would enable the community to have a role in shaping the narrative the museum tells about them. Deaccession would be a little more difficult, but still possible. A museum could entrust objects it cannot keep to members of the community, especially if they were related to the donors. The museum should screen potential recipients of deaccessioned objects and tell them the basics of object care and conservation. The museum would be training community members to take care of their own heritage, which would be a form of empowerment.

  3. Cyndi T. says:

    There is a new program in Connecticut where many of the historical societies and history museums will be using a web-based collections database, similar to Skin, where they can view the objects that other participating museums have in their collections. As a result, they will be able to borrow objects more easily from other museums to use in their exhibits and, since they know what objects are nearby, they will have more options for new exhibits.

  4. araya1468 says:

    I think it is a brilliant idea for a museum to lend its collection to another institution. Here is why: it allows the two institutions to build a relationship, it would be a useful marketing strategy to build your museum’s brand, you can use it as a tactful way to bring in diverse audiences, and your museum can potentially profit from this partnership. More museums should be open to lending its collections to other museums if they plan to survive because, coming from a marketing standpoint, it gets the name/brand out there, you attract more people, and like you said, people become more aware of the types of collections the museum has.

    Do museums still need objects? I think all museums need objects, even if it is not in the traditional sense to have a physical object on display, but I think museums could still utilize and consider technology in their exhibits as objects. At the Lincoln cottage, during the tour I was surprise at the lack of objects it had, but I liked how they incorporated technology in it – which can be treated as an object. Same goes for the exhibit on human trafficking, their stories, their oral histories, in my opinion, are in fact objects and should be treated as such.

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