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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Do you collect like a museum curator?

By tcrnkl0, on 1 February 2019

Why do some objects end up in museums and others in the bin? How do people decide what’s important to keep from everyday life today?

These are questions I’ve posed as part of my research with the Heritage Futures project, both to social history curators and ordinary people. Social history curators make these decisions based on years of collections knowledge and experience, but ultimately their reasons for selecting things aren’t so different from why most people choose to hold onto important possessions.

Think of the important keepsakes in your life. The following quiz will tell you whether or not your reasons for adding to and keeping a personal collection are similar (or not) to a museum’s.


1. Does your object tell a story?

(A) No

(B) Yes

If your answer is yes, then you’re in good company. Even if the object itself is unremarkable at first glance, the story it tells might be significant or unusual enough to warrant bringing it into a museum. Consider the Whitechapel Fatberg. On its own, it’s just an ugly grey-yellow lump, but it also tells an important story about ways we’ve dealt and thought about waste, both past and present.

Museums sometimes struggle with how best to ensure that the story of an object is preserved far into the future. Often this means recording and preserving the stories of people who donated (or have a connection to) the object alongside the object itself. However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that stories are less durable than objects—they can evolve with the times.


2. Does your object represent a trend or fad?

(A) Yes

(B) No

Museum curators aren’t immune from fads and trends! And what people are currently obsessed with does tell us something about our society. Still, this can lead to some weird stuff in collections. The Horniman Museum has several teeny-tiny fake taxidermy dogs from when these were EXTREMELY POPULAR in the Victorian era. Not what you’d put in your living room now. That said, the Horniman has added a fidget spinner to the ‘Curiosities’ section of their new World Galley. Will anyone know what those are in 50 years? I think not.


3. Did someone else tell you to keep it?

(A) No

(B) Yes

In actuality, sometimes museums don’t have a lot of choice about what they collect. This can be because they have a remit to collect things from a parent body. For example, a local authority museum or archive usually needs to keep things related to the local government. You might have the personal equivalent of this, i.e. you inherit a keepsake from one of your literal parent bodies. The trouble with passing things down is that you never really know what the next generation is going to do with it. Manchester Museum’s Heritage Futures exhibition found the perfect illustration for this: the Christmas sweater. Will next generation throw it away, or worse, wear it ironically?

Christmas sweater display at the Heritage Futures exhibition at Manchester Museum. The tag reads: ‘Merry Christmas. To: The Future’. Photo by author.


4. Do you want to get rid of it but can’t figure out how?

(A) Yes

(B) No

Sometimes we hang onto keepsakes without really knowing why. Maybe you hate the ugly Christmas sweater your Mum gave you, but would feel guilty if you threw it away. If you’re a museum, maybe you’re struggling with hundreds of old milk bottles taking up space in your store (real example). According to Heritage Future’s survey on ‘profusion’ in collections, social history museums are far more likely to acquire items then to get rid of them. More than 90% of survey respondents said that there were objects in their questions they wouldn’t collect today if they were starting from scratch.

Not getting rid of things means that it’s hard to take on new material—which social history museums need to do if they want to evolve and respond to a changing world. Luckily, unlike museums, you don’t have to go through an intensive deaccessioning process to remove items from your collection. Marie Kondo away!


5. Did you steal it?

(A) Yes

(B) No

British imperialism and colonialism played a significant role in shaping and funding national collections. Even when objects weren’t literally stolen or taken through violence, they were often obtained through coercion or unequal relationships. For example, if British collectors had power and authority over local people, whether through official governance or wealth and inequality. Unfortunately, many museums still refuse to return these objects or acknowledge their origins. Alice Proctor’s ‘display it like you stole it’ badges and Uncomfortable Art Tours are one of many project that call for museums to be honest about the histories of their collections.

If you happened to have stolen something that’s in your personal collection, please give it back. Unless it is something like the shiny silver ornament I stole from a potpourri dish in a friend’s toilet as a child.  That’s probably fine.

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