Interpretation & Value

In her work, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America, Jennifer Anderson examines the socioeconomic effects of the mahogany industry. Anderson discusses the mahogany logging industry in the Caribbean as demand for mahogany materials rose in England and America. As mahogany trees were logged, often by small groups of enslaved peoples, the forest were ravaged and lost much of its biodiversity. It was not only the forest that was impacted by the demand for the beautiful wood. Enslaved peoples toiled at the hands of slave masters and plantation owners who were only concerned with the import and export of material.

But what does this mean for museums? Perhaps, it could influence the traditional display of material. I spoke with Jessica Michak, archivist for Deadwood History, Inc. about the importance of contextualizing material culture. She commented that although an organization my have the best of intentions while displaying objects professionals are often constrained by time and resources. Perhaps, as emerging museum professionals we can push the bounds of traditional interpretation. Through exploring the origin of materials and broadening our scope we can approach a more contextualized display.

Ms. Michak and I also discussed the value of objects such as mahogany pieces, both historical and economic. For me, this raised a couple of questions about the idea of value in museum settings. Is there a risk in assigning an object some kind of value? If no value is assigned is it inherently zero? And, does that value (either historic or economic) have an effect on the way that object is interpreted?

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10 Responses to Interpretation & Value

  1. corwhe56 says:

    You raise an excellent question about the value of objects. By putting an object on display, or even in a museum, inherently gives it a value. Even though the economic value most likely will not be explicitly stated, visitors tend to know depending on the caliber of the museum how much an object is worth. To solve this bias would be to interpret the objects in a different way, instead of simply the origins of the object but who had contact with it throughout the ages. From the enslaved men and women who cut down the trees, to the wealthy elite who owned it, and the house slaves who used the items everyday.

  2. emily_pfeil says:

    I think that the issues you bring up are very important, but are very hard to address. Value is a very interesting concept and there is a big difference between historic and economic values. I think that this is why it is essential to push the boundaries of traditional interpretation in order to challenge our meaning of “value”, as well as provide a full context in exhibits.

    • shaual96 says:

      I agree, I also think that the mere act of putting something in a glass display case tells the visitor “this is valuable” and many of the times, the visitors don’t actually know the real value, why it is valuable or how it is valuable. I think challenging the very concept of value is a great way to also interact with the visitor. The thing is, how do we challenge the very meaning of value?

      • joshdtaylor says:

        I agree. Just saying something is valuable behind a wall of glass do not show the visitor how it actually is significant. It is also to look at how other cultures place value on objects and history since as museums are expanding to new audiences, what these cultures value. The concept of value is difficult to change but it is has to as e expand our audience.

  3. sstrzepek says:

    You raise some great questions in regard to the values we place on objects. Determining the value, both monetarily and historically, definitely seems like a risky situation. I would be afraid the true meaning or significance of the piece in a larger scheme would become lost amongst the numbers.

    • welceq51 says:

      I agree with you in part. I think if the number value is a small piece of a larger cultural narrative of meaning, the number is an enhancement. Especially if placed in a context of, “Because the cultural value is so large, it is assigned this numeric value”.

    • peytonktracy says:

      I agree with both you and Emily here. I think that sometimes a monetary value leaves out the emotional cost of an object, or even if assigned based on thorough analysis of the various costs of creating the object, it somehow removes the emotion of it. Like in the podcast we listened to. Maybe not so much in nature, but what if the tree that became the mahogany table ended a life in it’s harvest? Or what if the table was a wedding gift to someone’s mother, grandmother, great grandmother and saw every holiday family meal for generations? Thinking about the story behind each individual object, its costs and influences in the lives it witnessed, makes it much more compelling to visitors and much more valuable to some. I’m with you, placing a number on that can be risky.

  4. jehartman93 says:

    Such an exciting idea! I think that books like Mahogany only add value to objects in existing collections that are made from precious materials. This new value consists of new narratives being brought to life by historians and scientists who are uncovering the untold stories of the people who created these objects. History, natural history, and even art museums can and should start running new exhibitions on the reinterpretation of materials like mahogany in their different socio-historical, scientific, and narrative contexts.

  5. lucega96 says:

    Great post! I agree with what everyone has said above about value and the power museums can have over expressing that value – whether it be economic, social, or personal value. To Jessica Michak’s point about new museum professionals having the ability to break traditional forms of interpretation speaks to all we’ve learned so far at CGP. There is always more to an object than the accepted narrative suggests.

  6. scalje70 says:

    I think you raise some very interesting questions in this post. I think there is risk in assigning an object a specific value, because then it will be viewed differently. And if we are assigning the value as an outside culture, that makes it more complicated. Without knowing the true importance of an object in a community, how do we determine its value? So many different interpretations and assessments can be made about so many different objects, it just depends on who is looking at it.

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