Who are you collecting for?

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.

9 thoughts on “Who are you collecting for?

  1. Awesome post, Lori. Nice to have you in the conversation, and to have your insight as a Wikipedian-in-residence!

    I am so glad you understood that I was not so much thinking about collecting policies and strategies (the first moment in this process when it’s important to ask who are you collecting for), but the bigger picture question of who is this collection, once collected, actually for. I think you really get to the heart of the matter when you ask “An important question is, “How might our audience use our collection and how can we serve these needs online?”” Something to think about…

  2. It’s really good to see these issues being discussed.

    Just to complicate the picture a little more, we should be aware that our institutions don’t have a monopoly on knowledge about the collections we hold.

    Sharing may be a way of unlocking even more metadata and so even more value from them.

  3. Good point Mike! That’s actually one of the exciting things (I think) about uploading museum collections to the ‘net – the opportunity to learn new information about the objects within. But of course, then we probably have to consider how this impacts on our recording of the history of the object’s interpretation. Do the interactions that the public has with a collection online (like tagging/commenting on an object) actually feed back into the formal museum documentation? And if so, under what circumstances?

  4. Thanks, Suse! I’m excited to have found a group of people thinking through the same things that I am, and in a broader sense outside of Wiki (because I’m not all Wikipedia! 🙂 The question, “How might our audience use our collection and how can we serve these needs online?” directly links to your research on creating different website front ends that cater to distinct users. How can our online collections do this too?

    @Mike your point is really important, and one that sites like the Reciprocal Research Network (rrnpilot.org) is trying to address. The RRN is reaching out to indigenous communities to better gather oral histories, images, and research on objects — and is doing so with communities of all levels of technological connectedness. I learned about this project at the recent World Archaeological Intercongress in Indianapolis and I’m really intrigued by how this type of platform can be adapted to all collections (kind of like mixing that with CollectionsSpace). Anyway, my point is that opening up the collection for comment from your visitors, and from experts around the world, will only enrich the collection, as I know you to very much believe in.

    I actually think that Suse’s question about how informal documentation feeds into the formal documentation is a really important one and not necessarily secondary. I’ve been talking through the beginning stages of this at our museum and it’s incredibly important that the curators understand how the collection is being shared, how participant input will be gathered, where that information will live, and how it will meld (or remain separate from) the curatorial research and archives. It’s important, for instance, that it’s clear that their research and metadata within their own database will not be altered by visitors; the two will remain distinct. (Or, will they? depending on the project and the institution.) It’s an important conversation to have up front.

  5. Lori – of course you’re right, we shouldn’t launch into a project without thinking about how it will feed back into the museum’s formal records, that would be short-sighted.

    ‘Secondary’ is not the best term for what I was trying to get over, which is simply that the informal record can be seen as an end in itself and a legitimate use of the collection in its own right.

    That it then adds to the museum’s dataset, having been mediated and controlled in some clever way, is a lovely bonus. (Bonus in the sense of well earned reward!).

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