June 2010

Today Eric Johnson and I have a guest post at Museum 2.0 about Oldenberg’s The Great Good Place, part of this month’s discussion on the book.  Do go read it: we shoutout to John Cotton Dana.

At the inventive, playful and democratic new history galleries at the Oakland Museum, which I had the pleasure to visit last month, there is a section about objects.  What does it mean for an object to be in a museum?  What sounds do different objects make?  How do you tell objects apart?  Visitors can also explore what it means to BE a museum object–there’s a photo opp where visitors can stand in a case with oversized tags reading things like “most beautiful thing in the museum” or “ancient artifact.”  I want to talk about that “ancient artifact” tag.  It’s a common joke, but it gets to a history museum phenomenon I’m struggling to understand.

Contemporary collecting of everyday objects for a history institution is an interesting beast.  Often we use recent objects to provide an emotional hook for visitors into the stories and contexts of unfamiliar objects of the past (a 1990s cellphone for an exhibit of telephones from the 1880s on, for instance).  But it’s more complicated.  People of a certain age, usually under 50, when seeing a childhood toy or object they used in their lifetime, are totally derailed from any interpretive context or social interaction and say this:  “Oh no, I’m so old!  My stuff is in a museum!”

Despite any assurances that this means not that the visitor is “old,” but that their stories are important, it’s very difficult for visitors to get over this experience of seeing their recent past as “history.”  This phenomenon might be less pronounced in a local or community history museum; letting aside the reverence value an object gains simply from becoming part of a museum collection, I suspect that the severity is greater at my current museum, where iconic, sainted objects of national importance share the floor with the Speak n Spell.*

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with reminding visitors of their mortality, or of making room for and supporting visitors’ varied emotional reactions to museum artifacts and experiences, but I’m worried that this “I’m old” reaction is harmful to visitors and museums.  In a relentlessly neophilic age, history museums contextualize novelties and remind visitors of historical continuities almost erased by the American culture’s collective short attention span.  If visitors leave with the idea that their lives are museum pieces, rather than that museums reflect their lives, are we doing them a disservice?  If they leave feeling that their stories are outdated and over, rather than important and historically valuable, are we doing good public history?

Has anyone done research on this phenomenon?  I welcome any references or leads!

*Which always features in my tours.