Who are you collecting for?

Posted on July 2, 2011

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Who is your museum collection for?

This might seem like a strange (and even silly) question for a museum geek. After all, I really hope that on some level the objects in your collection are for me! But since last week, when I asked  “if you have objects in your collection that could be useful to human society – whether to a researcher or someone else – and they can’t find or access that information (even just at a basic level to know that the object is in your collection), does that object have any purpose?” I’ve been thinking about just who and what we are collecting for.

At the Art Gallery where I work, we might have at most 200 collection objects on the floor at any one time (and many times, far less than this). This is out of a collection of almost 6000 works of art, and so most of the collection once acquired and preserved is rarely seen. We seem to hold onto some wonderful art objects for no one to use or even see.

And so I want to know for whom this wonderful collection – and all the other great collections of art; of specimens; of useful and not-useful objects – has been created. Is it for the silverfish? Or simply for the annals of history, in the hope that some day someone will have a purpose for it?

I am not the only person asking this. The Centre for the Future of Museums recently held a Twitter chat on the Future of Museum ethics (discussed here), and one of the questions raised was:

“[What are] The ethics of museums having many artifacts in storage which are never shown and are “inaccessible”[?] … In the digital age, with all materials potentially accessible in some way via the internet, what are a museum’s ethical obligations to invest in such access?”

And yet even once people can access a collection online, we are uncomfortable about letting go of control over our objects and collections – something that runs counter to mash-up culture. In 2010, Kristin R. Eschenfelder and Michelle Caswell published research on Digital cultural collections in an age of reuse and remixes that explored the control of non-commercial reuse of digital cultural works, and found that there were three main motivations for cultural institutions to seek control over their collections. These were “Controlling descriptions and representations,” “Legal risks and complexities” and “Getting credit: fiscal and social costs and revenue.”

Each of these does presents a significant reason why museums might seek to control the way that people can use the digital objects in their online collections. Further, Nick Poole recently published an excellent post about the Europeana Foundation’s new licence agreements, which would allow the publishing of Europeana digital cultural content as Linked Open Data. A significant number of museums expressed concern about signing the agreements, and Poole writes on why he thinks this is so:

As a linguist, I am used to talking about the signified and the signifier – broadly, there is the thing itself and the word which points to and describes the thing. For museums, this connection is very significant – there is the object, the material artefact, and then there is the meta-information which describes the object (the object number and its corresponding catalogue record). But this meta-information is neither simply factual nor simply descriptive. It, and the artefact it describes are part of an integral whole, connected by the object number as a persistent identifier.

Ergo, our collections are not simply about the objects. They are also about the history of the object, and even the history of the object’s interpretation. And online, that collection is signified by the way it is presented and represented digitally.

And as such I imagine that many institutions would still be incredibly uncomfortable about a member of the public ‘remixing’ the digital simulacrum of their collection objects (even those objects which are no longer under copyright). Which leads me back to my original question. Who is your collection for? If we feel the need to prevent the public from being able to reuse the digital object in a very vital and contemporary way, then does this mean our collection isn’t for them? And if we are not collecting for the public, then whom are we collecting for? Academics and researchers? Other museum professionals? Abstract people who live in some imagined future iteration of our world?

Early collections started in private homes and to satisfy personal whims. Answering this question a couple of hundred years ago would have been incredibly simple. The answer would have been limited to an individual and his social circle. But I’m not so sure that this question is so straight-forward now, and particularly in light of the fact that we can now make museum collections available to the general public online.

Now, I am not calling for cultural institutions to cede control of their online collections. There are legal, fiscal and cultural implications to such action, and this is not the argument I am trying to make. I guess I’m just trying to work out exactly who it is museums are holding onto their objects for.

Oh – and BTW – if you do know who your collection is for, I’d love to know if that impacts on your online collection, and in what ways.

Posted in: Ideas, Questions