Museum objects and complexity

Posted on June 8, 2011


Being in the first six months of my PhD, I am still in the reading/learning/planning stages of my research. This means that I’m spending a lot of time looking at how other people have been approaching the field, and I’ve noticed a number of people working in the museum technology area are utilising complexity theory to inform their work (see Fiona Cameron and Sarah Mengler Complexity, Transdisciplinarity and Museum Collections Documentation: Emergent Metaphors for a Complex World from the Journal of Material Culture 2009 for an example).

My initial reading into the area has led me to some interesting thoughts. According to John H. Miller and Scott E. Page, one of the things that makes a system complex, rather than merely complicated, is that the system cannot be reduced to a simple form for study. They illustrate the point, using the following example:

When a scientist faces a complicated world, traditional tools that rely on reducing the system to its atomic elements allow us to gain insight. Unfortunately, using these same tools to understand complex worlds fails, because it becomes impossible to reduce the system without killing it. The ability to collect and pin to a board all of the insects that live in the garden does little to lend insight into the ecosystem contained therein.
Miller, John H. & Scott E. Page (2007), Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, Princeton University Press. p10.

It strikes me that this is an interesting metaphor for the museum collection too. Early museum collections were precisely about reducing things to their elements, so that they could be better studied and understood. Ken Arnold succinctly makes this point in his book Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums, when he writes: “… it was the museum’s walls that signalled their defining function: they kept the objects in, whilst simultaneously keeping out other distractions” (Arnold, 5). The museum utilised its walls to isolate, so that the objects held within were able to be studied in a very limited and controlled context. They were liberated from the complex systems within which they originally functioned so we could better understand them as objects.

This might seem almost self-evident when thinking about natural history or science museums, but it’s equally true of art museums. When we remove a work of art from its social environment – from the political and cultural context in which it was created – we isolate that work of art, and put it into a very limited and prescribed context, based on a fairly limited view of art history. Curatorial statements attempt to describe some of the context within which the work was created, but we have still removed the art from its complex system, and isolated it for preservation and study. In doing so, we remove some of the plurality of the work’s meaning, but make it more directly comparable with other collected works within the museum taxonomy. Arnold writes, “taxonomy and classification have for almost three centuries been the most powerful way by which knowledge has been created and then reinterpreted within museums” (Arnold, 243) and this isolation for comparative purposes has been a key aspect of this.

Conversely, the Internet is a complex adaptive system. Therefore when we upload museum collections and allow people to interact with them in new ways, we are actually trying to reinsert our previously isolated objects back into a highly complex system. This is a critical reversal in the way we think about our objects and collections. For possibly the first time, the objects in our collection are not being sequestered away from the world and hidden within the safe space of the museum. Instead, we must now try to reposition those objects and collections within the broad context of the Internet, and indeed, the whole world. No wonder the sector is struggling with how best to cope with this change. Not only are we inviting the public to interact with our collections in ways that have previously been impossible, we are asking the objects in our collection to take their place in a complex environment from which they have previously been quarantined.

Posted in: Ideas, Museums