How Do We Put a Value on History?

How do we value objects in museum collections? I interviewed Jim McCabe, chief curator at the Henry Ford Museum about this topic in relation to museums and collections.

The Henry Ford Museum uses a ranking system of 1-4 within its collections, denoting how much of a priority (and how much value) an object should have; 1 being the highest and 4 being the lowest. The ranks are assessed using these questions: How rare is the object? How much material is original to the object? Does the material particularly compliment this object’s history? Does this object tell a story that helps to advance the museum’s mission? Does it have provenance?

Do you think these questions can help to determine object value for museums?

McCabe also told me about the importance of provenance in different contexts. An object with a verified history has more value to the museum as an exhibit object, though an object with no provenance can be worth more to an educational program than an object with a documented story. Visitors can get hands-on experience with these objects without the museum worrying about harm coming to a unique item.

Objects having different values to different audiences helps to drive the Henry Ford Museum’s initiative to grow their online collections database. McCabe said that while some objects might not make for good exhibit pieces due to their specificity in topic or cumbersome physical size, people who would still find value in these objects should have access to them online.

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20 Responses to How Do We Put a Value on History?

  1. Leanne says:

    I wonder who is making that value judgement? Is it just collections, or curatorial? I wonder how that would change based on who was rating it.

  2. juliafell17 says:

    Good question! Mr. McCabe didn’t say who had input on those judgement calls, though I’d like to think that anyone at the museum with expertise in the genre of objects being looked at would be consulted. Different experts might also have different opinions, so the ranking system, though used in multiple institutions, can really only apply to one institution at a time, rather than working as a universal system.

    • pnorman02 says:

      I had the same thought. I think the questions are important, but I hope that at least a couple people are answering these questions for each object. Why this is undoubtedly time consuming, I think it would help provide a more rounded examination of an items value. Also, having more people’s input, doesn’t place all the responsibility for determining an object’s worth on one person.

  3. kiewma93 says:

    I think giving object an assigned value can be helpful, but, like Leanne, I worry that the process of valuing can be subjective. There may be “hidden” costs that are not evaluated. It makes me think of the honey bee story on the podcast we listened to.

  4. juliafell17 says:

    I agree. I think in order to understand how this process is applied and how effective it is, I would want to talk more with Mr. McCabe or with other collections managers who use it, and get their opinions on how to deal with the subjectivity.

  5. at01lang says:

    Subjectivity is always a concern in looking to denote an object’s value, a reminder of the impossibility of achieving true objectivity regarding collections outside of matters of age, material, etc. That said, I am intrigued both by the ranking system and the question of the relative utility of the object for different audiences or departments. While this does assign a certain type of value, I find it more helps orient and organize objects, so that, for a particular exhibit or activity, an object can be more easily located and decided upon as appropriate (and with a collection such as the Henry Ford has, any help here is good). I do not think it assigns absolute value as opposed to value in the context of a particular museum activity. It is something that would be interesting to see in other museums, though there are still the questions, as Leanne and Melissa raised, about how the criteria involved here is determined.

  6. juliafell17 says:

    The ranking system most likely does work better once objects are placed within different contexts… although how those contexts are decided raises even more questions! I have a feeling that I will spend a lot of time in my life trying to answer the questions that have been brought up here… not a bad thing, from my perspective. All the more reason to keep on researching and learning!

  7. thankyouluke says:

    I think context is the key! I think it is difficult, but we must look at objects, especially objects form other cultures than our own, through the lens of that culture. All too often we apply our own value systems to objects, and even worse to different culutres, and distort their true meanings.

  8. juliafell17 says:

    Absolutely! I think this brings up some really interesting ideas about having consultants from outside the museum who can comment on an object’s cultural significance, and keeping an open mind about objects that seem insignificant through our own cultural lens.

  9. mickcr says:

    I never really thought about different object having different value based on how it can be used in an institution. I think it’s important to look at value based on different cultures and judge importance in that way. And with the collection at the Henry Ford Museum, I can see why a ranking system is necessary to keep all of their objects organized!

  10. juliafell17 says:

    I never thought about that either! That was one of my favorite parts of the interview because it was a totally new perspective and it made so much sense.

  11. kwebberj says:

    It seems like, on the whole, this ranking system has been approached fairly carefully. Having the four criteria doesn’t leave room for as much subjectivity as you would get if you just asked curators to rank from one to four based on their idea of value. It seems like the aspects of the object they’re making a value judgement on–primarily the object’s importance to the museum–are aspects that legitimately need to be taken into account if you’re going to accession items at all. Very interesting discussion!

    • juliafell17 says:

      I agree; I think that the criteria being in place do go a long way towards keeping the ranking system fair. It’s a thin line to walk between staying on that path and letting personal opinions or preferences interfere, but hopefully as long as the system is followed, the collections will be handled appropriately.

  12. emerbr84 says:

    The question really should be how important is this object to our mission. No history is less important than another, but if the object does not fit with the mission it serves no good. Thus, these objects should be assessed and sold to someone that can offer a better interpretation.

  13. juliafell17 says:

    Keeping the mission in mind certainly is important, and that is one of the criteria for the ranking system. I would hope that objects that do not serve the mission are considered for de-accessioning and transfer to a more appropriate owner.

  14. joshdtaylor says:

    I feel that if an object does not fit under the mission or purpose of the museum, the it might be time to reconsider the object staying at the organisation. Placing cultural value on objects is a key element of the museum but at what point does that object lose that value? As we bring museums up to speed, it might be time to reevaluate some of these objects.

  15. saraumland says:

    This made me rethink collections, and how the value that we place on them can change with the context, we put them in. Everyone wants to see Dorothy’s red slippers when they visit the National Museum of American History. The slippers are a valuable object for their role in an iconic film and how people view that film. On the other side, the slippers are worthless in value regarding their accessibility. Nobody but collection managers can touch them, feel them and when was the last time someone got to try them on and learn from them?
    I think it is an excellent idea that the Henry Ford Museum looks at their collections regarding different sets of values. At a time when collections are becoming less of a priority, this is how collections might have to survive. Not on who much stuff museums might have in their collection but on the value that the collection serves the public.

    • juliafell17 says:

      Dorothy’s red slippers are a wonderful example of different kinds of value. Now I want to go to the museum and demand that they let me try them on. You know, for educational purposes! In all seriousness, though, I do often wonder how much could be learned from being able to put on clothing from eras past. Even though Dorothy’s slippers, like many other antique items of clothing, are probably too delicate to wear, careful reproductions of items like this can and do provide a new option for education.

  16. karissa430 says:

    I think it’s really interesting to rank objects based on their value. I think this would be great for certain things like when you want to show off certain collections or objects to prospective donors or in creating an emergency plan and prioritizing objects to be evacuated/saved. But I think it’s important that museum professionals understand that objects have multiple stories and can be valuable in various ways.

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