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Biomedicine in museums

Is collecting contemporary historical objects a 'risky business'?

By November 19, 2012No Comments

Steven Lubar — director of the public humanities programme at Brown University and keen observer of things museological — has just drawn his Twitter followers’ attention to a “nice” blog post on the problems of collecting contemporary artefacts written by National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens.

Stephens’ blog post revolves around Stanley (a driver-less vehicle that won a historic off-road American robot race in 2005), which she collected for the museum’s robot collection in 2009, and now takes as her point of departure for some reflections about “the risky business” of collecting contemporary history.

Risky? Created by the Stanford Racing Team, Stanley was “a giant technical step forward for autonomous vehicles”, a technology which may soon help reduce accidents and highway congestion and let drunk people drive home in their own car. Nevada, California and Florida already permit them on state roads. Sounds to me like a pretty obvious artefact to acquire.

But Carlene Stephens was nevertheless somewhat uneasy about bringing Stanley into the national collection and about loaning it to the National Air and Space Museum’s new Time and Navigation exhibition (which is bound to open in March next year).

She was “nervous”, she writes, because collecting Stanley stood in contrast to her historical training and interests. As a curator, she was used to make acquisition decisions about artefacts for which there is “a body of existing research and documentation that verifies the importance of an object from long ago”. So usually, as she poignantly puts it, she practices “collecting from inside a comfort zone” (I like that expression!)

But when collecting contemporary objects like Stanley, she thinks that she “comes close to predicting the future”. And that, in her view, is why collecting contemporary historical artefacts is such a “risky business”:

Curators have to make educated guesses that today’s technical innovation will be tomorrow’s historic milestone. Curators who do contemporary collecting take the risk that an object making headlines today will remain representative of some important event or illustrative of how Americans absorbs new technologies. Such an object might even carry material evidence that inspires our successors to dig deeper into research we haven’t even imagined yet. Or maybe collecting such an object won’t have any of those useful outcomes. Maybe it will simply lie fallow forever after in storage. As I say, it’s a risky business.

Even though this particular artefact didn’t turn out an acquisition failure (“so far Stanley doesn’t disappoint” at all), Stephens’ argument is that collecting contemporary artefacts is perpetually risky because we have to make “educated guesses” about the future historical milestones.

Are museums really in the business of making “educated guesses” when they collect the contemporary material culture?. I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think Carlene Stephens’ argument is basically flawed and a major obstacle for developing good practice for contemporary collecting. And the flaw, in my opinion, is the presupposition that museums engage in collecting in order to preserve “tomorrow’s historic milestones”.

The presupposition is flawed, because there is no way we can know what “tomorrow’s historic milestones are”. We cannot predict what future historians and museum visitors would be interested in seeing in 10, 25 or 100 years from now. Actually, we don’t even know if anyone will be interested in historical museum artefacts then. Or if museums as we know them today will exist in 2050. Maybe there will be no historians and curators! And do we have any reason whatsoever to expect that people will be interested in “milestones” (whatever that is)?

In my view, collecting for a ‘known unknown’ (‘known’ because historical time won’t stop, and ‘unknown’ because we cannot look into the crystal ball) is probably the worst rationale there is for new museum acquisitions. I suggest instead that it makes much more sense to collect whatever today’s museum curators and the public at large find fascinating and are willing to investigate their professional or lay enthusiasm and extra working hours to acquire.

After all, what fills most museum reserve storage areas today is the accumulated results of earlier curators’ and amateur collectors’ passion for what was then contemporary material culture. For example, Henry Wellcome‘s collecting “strategy” was to bring in as much fascinating stuff about medicine and ethnography, both contemporary and of the past, he could lay his hands on. The result is one of the world’s richest and most wonderful museum collections.

Staff from Medical Museion collecting contemporary medical objects at the museum’s annual Garbage Day, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

Similarly hundreds of historical medical collections around the world are the result of more or less serendipitous collecting by medical doctors and happy amateurs. Nobody told these people to be nervous or to avoid the “risky business” of collecting the medical artefacts they saw around them — artefacts which they, for whatever more or less irrational reason, thought were worth preserving.

Had the curators and collectors of the past been as anxious as Carlene Stephens we would hardly have any museums today. And that’s the major problem with her argument. If the idea of collecting as a “risky business” becomes widespread and if museums curators and the amateur collectors become increasingly nervous and anxious about acquiring contemporary culture, museums of the future will definitely have a huge lacuna in their holdings from the late 20th and early 21st century.

The only thing that’s risky about collecting contemporary artefacts is the belief it’s risky.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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