A "restless and disgruntled visitor" writes in The Monthly

What’s the point of museum objects?

It’s not all that often that an article on museum practice shares column inches and prominence with articles on Barack Obama and female infanticide. But that’s what’s happened in the latest edition of The Monthly. In an essay entitled “The Absent Heart”, novelist Amanda Lohrey laments that “so much exhibition design is pedestrian, or worse, confused and at some times chaotic”.

The core of her criticism is the “fetishising” of the object ahead of a wider story or narrative: “I come away with the impression that our curators are more conserned about the preservation of the artefact than they are to give any account of the history that produced it. Where is the passion for meaning, for making sense of the world? Where is the desire to create an experience for the visitor?

As someone from an interpretation background, I can find much to agree with in this quest for wider meaning. Interpretation is all about answering the question “So What?” – and for this author at least, that question has not been adequately answered.

The essay challenges a lot of shared assumptions in the museums sector, and raises some intriguing questions:

  1. Have we reached the limits of letting people ‘make their own meanings’ in exhibition spaces? How much evidence do we have that this is a successful strategy? (And in some cases is ‘let visitors decide’ being used as a convenient fig leaf for avoiding controversy and not venturing an opinion?)
  2. From the point of view of storytelling, how important is the ‘real’ object? Lohrey makes the point in relation to showing the size of Phar Lap’s heart: “if you are concerned with meaning then a model will do, but if you are in the market for fetishising objects as magical tokens – “the real thing” – then it seems that only the pallid tissue of the original will suffice.” Here I could easily present a counter example: the Apollo capsule in the Smithsonian would be nowhere near as compelling if it were just a model, and not the scarred and burned vehicle that safely brought three men back to Earth after an incredible journey. But all this proves is that the value of the object is completely dependent on the point you’re trying to make.
  3. There seems to be an implicit assumption in the essay that an exhibition should follow a single specific narrative (at one point Lohrey observes that “the visitor is wandering along no clear path at all . . . “ Is this the prejudice of a novelist, whose chosen medium is by definition very linear, or is it of wider concern to visitors in general? Is it unrealistic to expect that a three-dimensional environment will easily lend itself to a single linear narrative?

In reading this article, it reminded me of a passage that really leapt out at me from the book “Thriving in the Knowledge Age” by John Falk and Beverly Sheppard (p127): ” . . .our collections bring value to the museum in direct proportion to the “knowledge” they provide. The objects do not “speak for themselves”. The intellectual value of a museum’s collections is directly tied to the use of these objects to provide answers to questions society finds valuable.”

This seems to reflect well the overall point of the article – what socially relevant questions is the display of these objects addressing?

Bottom line is that this article raises several legitimate questions, and I’m not sure how much evidence we have as a sector to properly address these questions. More research into how different audience groups relate to the exhibition environment is definitely needed.