It’s Time for a Kykuit-type Conversation about Historical Objects

It is time to do for objects what we have done for historic structures and sites. For decades we assumed the “best practice” for such a property was to set it up and present it as a historic house museum, historic village, or historic farmstead, with priority placed on historical accuracy over visitor needs. Authenticity – defined as the real thing portrayed just as it was at some point in the past – was deemed the highest value.

In 2007, at the second Kykuit conference organized by Jim Vaughan, then the VP for historic sites at the National Trust, we redefined the value of historic places in this way:

Sustainability begins with each historic site’s engagement with its community and its willingness to change its structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of that community.

Serving the needs of the local community (not the tourist audience) is the most valuable and most sustainable goal for most historic sites.

Claiming community relevance as the highest value led to a significant shift in thinking. Instead of the importance of history, we started to think about the power of place. This simple shift in focus unleashed a wealth of fresh thinking, innovation, new programming, and community involvement at historic sites around the nation.

Until recently our conversations about collections have mostly addressed how rather than why? We’ve had lengthy discussions about deaccessioning, and standards of care, and access. But what is the real value of historical objects?

We may be starting to have a different conversation now. Rainey Tisdale, in “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?” (History News, Summer 2011), claims that the value of historical artifacts lies in their authenticity – here defined as something tangible, in contrast to virtual representations of objects online. To quote Reach Advisors, as cited by Tisdale, people value such objects “because real authenticity is increasingly hard to find in our crazy world.”

I fear that simply claiming authenticity as the defining value of historical objects doesn’t get us very far. In a sense it just makes us an alternative or antidote to modern life. We need to dig deeper.

Reach Advisors (thank you again, James and Susie) has other intriguing data that suggest that an encounter with an object at an early age (mean age 7) and crafting one’s own story about the object, leads to avid museum participation as an adult. Others are researching what actually happens during object-based learning. We’re getting a better understanding of the developmental value of tinkering with objects, figuring out how something works, and coming up with ways to improve it. Nina Simon in The Participatory Museum describes “social objects” that by their nature prompt dialogue among the people viewing them. (p.129 ff) We are starting to see the ways in which objects impact our lives.

What if we bring together people who can help us discover and articulate a new value statement for historical objects? Can we arrive at a simple statement that opens up innovation? As I read and think about this I suspect the answer will relate to our function as institutions of learning. We will come to see historical objects primarily as tools for understanding ourselves and others.

What do you think?

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Posted on November 15, 2011, in collections, community, History. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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