Do Museums Screen Their Exhibits? Or Do We?

In Jennifer Anderson’s Mahogany, readers discovered the varied history of a resource usually only represented in fancy furniture collections. The labels that accompany these pieces typically state the bare basics: approximate date, maker, and school of furniture design.

Though perfectly educational, these labels leave out a large part of the history that went into the creation of these pieces. What was the social cost of that dining table? What happened to the ecology of where that sideboard was sourced? Unfortunately, this will typically not is not the type of information visitors typically receive from the museums they visit.

Kristen Costa, curator at the Newport Restoration Foundation, readily admits that museums focus on specific features of the past. For example, the furniture on exhibit at the Whitehorne House is used to educate the public on furniture styles and the rich history of Newport’s “maker culture,” while property tours in the town very briefly touch on the varied sources and impact of Newport’s furniture trade; neither delves deeper into the topic. She states that the public isn’t interested in the furniture, so a more nuanced history most likely will not be explored.

This stance poses a serious question. If the stories are there to be told, and the material is available, why are museums not tackling them? Is it a lack of desire in the museum culture, or is a lack of interest from the public? Can public demand bring about a change in displays? I believe they can. After all, why not?

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6 Responses to Do Museums Screen Their Exhibits? Or Do We?

  1. fundmc55 says:

    Lizzy, you raise an interesting question. I’m wondering if it’s not so much a lack of desire but rather a lack of resources? I would assume (dangerous I know) that many institutions are not going to pour resources into projects that do not interest their visitors. I think this, again, emphasizes the need for the organization to be connected and listening to the communities they serve.

  2. corwhe56 says:

    What could be happening is simply not a strong enough organizational desire to change. It would take intense effort to redo exhibits to incorporate a more story focused approach that many museums simply do not have the time or resources to do. If the community does call for the diversifying of labels then that should be a goal the museum works for in order to keep its visitors coming through the door.

  3. emily_pfeil says:

    I really like that you bring up this question. I think that it’s dangerous for museum professionals to think that the public isn’t interested in furniture and therefore should not attempt to tell these stories. Instead, I think that museums should take these topics as an opportunity to tell these untold stories and try to engage the public by relating furniture in a way that it interesting to them. We talked about linking mahogany and deforestation/ climate change, which could be a way to get the public interested. It’s our responsibility as museum professionals to tell these stories in a way that engages and makes an impact on the public.

  4. lucega96 says:

    These are great thoughts! Why do museums stick to the traditional narrative of styles, date, ownership, and value when interpreting objects – especially furniture? In the era following the paradigm shift when many museums are beginning to adopt unorthodox methods of reaching and serving the public, I find the traditionalist view of decorative art remains. People are very interested in economic value and economic value comes from aspects like material, quality, and age. As Gretchen brought up in class, Antiques Roadshow is a prime example of how exciting it is for people to see economic value attached to material culture. Museums certainly play on the same dynamic Antiques Roadshow harnesses. As has been said above, however, there is inherent danger in focusing on economic value and ignoring social, ecological, and personal value.

  5. scalje70 says:

    I agree with your opinion that public demand can bring about a change in displays. Museums are supposed to be focused on the public after all, and if the public wants to know the story behind the object they are viewing the museum should supply them with just that. I think tackling these stories will help to intrigue visitors more and help them to relate more to the objects they view.

  6. joshdtaylor says:

    This is a great question! I feel in this age of “throw it away once it is broke”, these objects from a different age take on a new meaning. However, we have to remember that stuff has to come from somewhere and all the effort to make it, ship it, and sell it, we forget all the hands that have touch even the smallest of objects.

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