Are museums still in the object business?

One thing I enjoy about studying museums and impact is that I sometimes stumble across very interesting and thought-provoking material in non-academic places. This morning, I found this blog post, Museums, Can We Stop Letting Objects Control the Narrative? on my Facebook page. I was drawn to it for a number of reasons, one being that I have experienced for myself the divide in academic museology between the “‘object’ people” and the “‘people’ people” and when I consider the trajectory of the museum and heritage sector the arc is moving ever away from object-centric concerns and towards more societal, audience-centric focuses.

I really want to focus on the blog post though because I find that there is some crossover between what the author, Andrea Jones, is talking about and what I found through my own research. So do pause for a moment and have a read of her post.

(It’s okay, I’ll just grab a cup of tea and meet you back here in a moment.)

The first thing that captured me is her acknowledgement that we don’t always have objects to represent the stories we want to tell. Indeed, we don’t always have objects which represent the full spectrum of the human experience. There are several reasons for this including historic collection practices and the processes of deterioration which affect material culture. Practitioners and academics are well aware of this shortcoming and many collection policies have been amended and revised to reflect the need for more well-rounded collections. The question Jones poses though, is should we let these shortcomings dictate which stories we can and cannot tell in our museums?

When conducting my own research into the impact of social justice museums, I interviewed a number of visitors about their museum experiences and I was intrigued about the responses to objects. When asked about what parts of the museum drew their interest, caused them to pause and reflect, or what they felt was most poignant, there were very few participants who spoke about objects. In fact, one visitor actually spoke about being more interested about reading the text panels and coming to a better understanding of the overarching story than looking at the objects. Many participants spoke about videos, interactives, and photographs. I was surprised by this phenomenon as there were some quite powerful objects on display.

I do not want to speculate about why objects were taking a backseat to other museum practices and exhibition strategies. That would have to be the subject for a second PhD in itself. What I can say is that I agree with Jones when she said:

Would I have loved to show students the melted steering wheel of the Greyhound bus that carried Freedom Riders? Absolutely. After experiencing a simulation, seeing the authentic steering wheel charred with the marks of real danger could have had a profound impact on the students. And in fact, I’m convinced that the experience would have given the steering wheel more power than just displaying it in a case with text. 

Museums have the unique ability to use objects to punctuate historic events through combined use of creative narrative techniques, dialogue, and technology. What I view as essential is building empathy with people of the past and present. When that connection is made, objects that may seem far removed from the human experience when behind glass cases, become personal. Visitors no longer feel like passive viewers but have become part of the story themselves.

Jones highlighted some very interesting empathy-building activities on the new tour at the Atlanta History Center and I was reminded strongly of the lunch counter interactive at the Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR) in Atlanta, Georgia. When I conducted interviews at CCHR the lunch counter was the most discussed interactive in the museum. Visitors tended to be positive about the experience and many talked about it being as close as they could come to experiencing what lunch counter protesters went through during the Civil Rights Era.

To give you an idea of the interactive, visitors are invited to sit at a re-creation of a lunch counter. Headphones are placed over their ears and they shut their eyes. Placing their hands on the counter triggers the experience. You hear the voices of angry and threatening individuals through the microphone and feel your chair vibrate as though someone is banging on the back of it.

Visitors responses are varied. Some pointed out that while it was intense, they knew it was only a simulation and so they could divorce themselves from some of the more intense emotions they might have experienced. Others were intensely moved by the simulation and found it very emotional. Staff members report that often following this experience, the visitors begin to change, especially school groups. They become more quiet, reflective, and more interested in the material. That empathy-building moment helps to focus and connect them to all of the material following. Just imagine placing a few poignant objects after such an experience.

Bearing this in mind and based on the responses Jones reports, perhaps it is time for museums and galleries to look toward building more immersive experiences which harness new technologies to enhance storytelling and to aid in building empathetic connections. Museum professionals should not feel that they can’t tell certain stories because they are not represented in collections, but we should not entirely discount objects either. Museums should build relationships with other institutions and individuals which do have objects that can help us tell stories that are important. We can build relationships with members of our communities as well. Perhaps we might put out a call for objects and personal narratives for new exhibitions we are considering. This might lead on to co-curated and co-produced material and experiences. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, in what way can the absence of objects bring people together?

One of the most innovative museum projects I have encountered is at Derby Silk Mill in the UK. The entire museum is undergoing a transformation and will soon become a “Museum of Making.” While still featuring objects from Derby’s industrial heritage, the entire focus of the museum has shifted from the display of historic objects to empowering visitors and community members to become makers themselves. Display cases, counters, and chairs in the galleries have all been made by members of the community in the museum’s workshop. This shift in focus highlights the historic objects in new, creative ways and I found myself looking at them differently. They become highlights to the overarching narrative of making. The museum is no longer weighed down by objects but is lifted by them.

So what are we museum professionals to do with objects? My main take away from Jones’s blog post is that we need to free ourselves from objects or rather what objects have come to be. We fill our galleries with them to tell our stories and the result is that visitors start to overlook them. We need to think about how people consume stories outside of our walls. How can we tell stories which engage visitors, make them part of the story, and build empathy? How might we punctuate these stories with our collections? How can our visitors become co-producers in the narrative? When we balance all of the possible narrative elements we have at our disposal (including objects), our stories and our relationships with our visitors are strengthened.