Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Secret Lives of Museum Objects

Reading Artifacts: A Workshop in Material Culture, on April 6, was a nice icebreaker for my first day at my first ever NCPH conference. The workshop began with a brief presentation of material culture theory followed by presentations of case studies. The last half of the workshop focused on a hands-on analysis activity for participants, which was a fun way to apply the ideas the presenters discussed.

I have been working with museum collections for the last few years, and I must admit that in the process of registering and caring for artifacts in museums with limited resources and less than ideal collections conditions, it is easy to lose sight of many of the stories the objects can tell. It is also easy to overlook the multiple significances an object can have.

For me, the most illuminating part of this workshop was Krista Cooke’s presentation entitled “Reading Artifacts for Difference: A Lesson in Gendering Material Culture.” Her discussion of the biases built into museum cataloging processes, nomenclature, and databases changed the way I think about the registration process. While this may be na├»ve, I had never before thought to apply the focus on multivocal history to collections practices other than just collecting more representative objects. I had also never really given much thought to the biases in nomenclature toward objects representative of upper and middle class white males. As Krista noted, often there is not official nomenclature for objects such as those used in midwifery, while objects used in male-dominated fields are generally easy to classify. She also discussed how shortcomings in nomenclature and classification systems make it difficult to categorize objects by theme, and in response to this, several different initiatives to use web 2.0 technology to allow users of digital collections to add their own tags to objects’ records, sharing in the authority of the classification process.

While there is promise in these technologies, small museums rarely have the means to create such intensive projects. The lesson I will take home with me based on Krista’s examples is simply that any collection can be representative of diverse groups if it is analyzed in a way that accounts for the many potential users, uses, and stories that its objects embody.

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