A "New" Bridge Between Collectors and Museums

Exhibition labels are often overlooked and underused.  We ignore these small, strategically positioned placards for any number of reasons.  “It’s too long to bother reading”; “It doesn’t say anything I’m interested in”; “It’s written in a funny language” — we all can be guilty of situational bouts of laziness, apathy, and otherness.  (Sometimes, we’re so bored by what is on display, we don’t even look for a label!  Oh well…)  But I strongly believe that observant patrons of sites of exhibition — be it a museum, gallery, historic site, zoo, etc. — have a more gainful experience when they read what is in front of them.  Title, maker, date, composition, provenance — if there’s a label, be sure to find any combination of these key bits of information.
I’m always interested to know how a thing got to be where it is.  I care about the facts of creation (origin) as much as current state of ownership (source, steward), and yes, all of the history in between (provenance).  I’m looking at a thing: Did the thing come from a museum’s permanent collection, squirreled away in a vast storage facility, only now exhibited for the first time?; Has a generous private lender with a dank attic full of priceless things decided to share his collection?; Was there a major discovery, anniversary, auction, or eruption of creativity in things that has made this one available, accessible, and of timely significance?  In effect, this information defines the relationship between myself — patron and viewer — and the thing I’m viewing.
I recently discovered Vastari.com, an independent platform facilitating direct contact between collectors and museums.  Vastari is a private networking tool that allows owners of cultural artifacts and accredited museum curators to find each other for the purpose of exhibition.  Collectors can search a database of proposals tailored to objects they hold and are offering to exhibit, while curators can search according to types of objects that complete the narrative of a planned exhibition.  The site is privately funded and non-partisan, meaning Vastari will not judge or exclude objects based on quality and connection.  The only requisite is that collectors contribute “museum-worthy” objects, identified as being:
  1. One of a kind or limited edition;
  2. Culturally significant, or representative of the era from which it is from
  3. Possessing a concrete provenance
  4. Accompanied by an authenticity certificate by an authorized institution or mentioned in correspondence of the time
  5. Owned indisputable by you.
I’m interested in Vastari as it relates to exhibition labels and the transparency I seek in knowing an object’s provenance.  I’ll find an object has come from an anonymous private collection, only to be left wondering who is the collector and from where s/he got it.  As a patron of culture, there’s nothing more frustrating than the aura of Who.  Within the bounds of legal title and security, I would like to know who was responsible for once holding and now sharing an object.  If I can see the curator’s name, why not also the lender’s?  Though not all cultural philanthropists seek to attach their name to a piece of art or artifact (let alone an entire gallery), I get the sense that many do.  Vastari increases the opportunity for private individuals to share their collections and their name with the world.  Likewise, curators are better able to access previuosly unknown collectors and collections.  The connection between curator and collector, patron and exhibition, is made stronger when these holes are filled.  If used ethically and with proper accreditation, Vastari provides a long-term solution to lending agreements and exhibition development.
Posted in collections, exhibition, heritage, museums, Vastari | Leave a comment

What is a collection, and what is collecting?

As a child I had all sorts of collections: stamps, keychains, milk caps (“pogs”), coins, and ice hockey pucks.  As an adult I still have all sorts of collections: rocks and minerals, photographs, books, and museum maps.  And sure enough, as I get older, I will likely amass new collections with as much enthusiasm and passion as in my youth.  In many ways, these various collections represent fleeting interests or a fixation with some popular object of the time.  Perhaps a few of my former collections were only marginally related to my interests — I was awful at Yo-Yos and hated them, yet I owned no fewer than a dozen — however, the fact that I maintained and stored them so intently signifies their powerful hold on me.  The more I had of an object, the better the collection.  It was as if I collected these “things” so that others could appreciate them for me.  To all the collectors out there, I know you understand this feeling, too!
Specimens from my rock and mineral collection
(Photo: Nicholas Merkelson)
Assembling, preserving, and displaying objects — the method of collecting, if you will — is somewhat of a basic human activity.  We collect multiple varied objects with the intention of forming “a collection,” a specific series of items deemed important because of their assemblage in a group.  It is their accumulation as a whole set rather than a single object’s individualized use-value that makes a collection.  In contrast to compulsive hoarding, collecting is a totally self-aware activity, a conscious performance of human-object relations played out by the collector and his/her collection.
Collections and the act of collecting is not homogenous, though; there are different motivations for gathering and arranging.  No two collections are exactly the same either, as each one was put together with unique perspectives and processes.  For this reason, even where there are noticeable gaps and empty spaces, every collection should be seen as constituting its own meaningful whole.  From the Library of Alexandria to the shoebox of trading cards under the bed, collections are created for any number of reasons.  Here are just a few (please submit others!):
1) Collections are repositories of knowledge and ideas.
2) Collections celebrate the objects and evidence of their creation.
3) Collections allow us to make sense of our world.
4) Collections map our social world, e.g. we visit, we trade, we purchase.
5) Collections help identify ourselves and our worth in relation to others.
6) Collections represent the Public/nation-states.
7) Collections contextualize our place in time and space.
An article (“Down the Hatch and Straight Into Medical History,” January 10) published in the New York Times Health section brilliantly captures the (sometimes) idiosyncratic nature of collecting.  Dr. Chevalier Jackson, a laryngologist who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, specialized in removing objects that people had swallowed or inhaled.  Operating with little or no anesthesia, Jackson rescued from his patients’ upper torsos nails and bolts, miniature binoculars, a toy goat, a beaded crucifix, and countless safety pins, among other unusual objects.  Despite many surgery-related deaths in those days, it is believed that Jackson’s patients had a 95% survival rate.  Jackson might otherwise be lost to history if not for his curious collection of over 2,000 objects he removed from patients, and soon to be on exhibit (February 18) at the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Mary Cappello, co-curator of the exhibit, discusses Jackson’s peculiar obsession in her book, Swallow.  She says, “He was a fetishist, no question.  If Jackson could tell us how he wished to be remembered, I’m certain he would do so by assemblage, or meaningful collage.”  The medical pioneer who once refused to return a quarter after removing it from a patient sought collecting as a means of displaying his clinical talents as well as teaching a lesson to people.  “[Jackson] was an early and outspoken safety advocate, particularly when it came to children.  As one of his assistant put it, his quest was to make the public and the medical profession ‘foreign-body-conscious’ about swallowing.”
When Jackson’s collection goes on display next month, be sure to remember the identifiable purpose for saving all of those inedible things, just as there is an epistemological purpose behind the culture of collecting in general.
Macdonald, S., 2006. Collecting practices. In: Sharon Macdonald (ed.), A Companion to Museum Studies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 81-97.
Posted in collections, cultural mapping, culture, museums, Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, New York Times, preservation | 1 Comment

For Your Consideration…

I’ve noticed every so often some bloggers will update their site with a “Footnotes” post where they include a few links to relevant material and provide minimal commentary.  I used to think this was a second-rate way of keeping readers interested and informed.  Why not write a short piece instead?  Aren’t most stories worth listing also worth writing about?  Clearly a bulleted list offers little interpretive value and in some ways cheapens the significance of the story and its message/implications.

Lately, though, I’ve been considering the merits of the “Footnotes” post.  In these lists, readers are alerted to a greater number of topics than in a longer, more focused post, as well as a range of noteworthy stories rather than just those about, say, archaeology, or museums, or cultural events.  (Un)fortunately, the quantity and diversity of stories I’d like to cover on Culture in Peril is too huge, therefore the “Footnotes” post allows all of us to remain current on cultural heritage issues when it’s needed most.  While none of the topics become outdated or obsolete, my goal is to keep readers up to speed without compromising the analytical side of Culture in Peril.

So, not to belabor my point further, here are a few stories/issues for your consideration…

– Zapotec Indians in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico provide a leading example of sustainable community forest ownership and management.  Cultural traditions, such as rule by an assembly of equals (“comuneros“), have defined their communities’ business model: anybody who dares work for loggers or hunters is branded a traitor and will lose property rights.

– Babylon and other sites of ancient Mesopotamia are finally receiving financial and material support from archaeologists and preservationists to prevent further deterioration.  The World Monuments Fund has unveiled a conservation plan while the U.S. State Department has committed $2 million to preserve the surviving ruins, including the two famous ancient cities of Ur and Nimrud.  Iraqi officials hope the preservation projects will attract scientists and tourists alike, contributing to the country’s cultural and economic revival.

– London’s house museums offer a glimpse into the lives and inspirations of aesthetes from the city’s past.  The stories of the houses’ former owners are as rich as the furniture and artwork inside.

– Former director of Little Falls Public Library (New York, USA) laments the “significant loss” of historical material through the sale of objects in the collection.  Raises questions about motives for and ethics of deaccession in museums and institutions with collections.

– Film footage of Jackie Robinson discovered in archives at Drew University (New Jersey, USA).

– Residents of Djenne, Mali angered at restrictions on development in their city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  People complain of being “frozen in time like pieces in a museum,” echoing similar tensions from those presently living at heritage sites across the world.

– Universal Music Group donates over 200,000 recordings from the 1930s-40s to the Library of Congress.  Collection includes iconic, rare, and never-digitized tracks from the jazz and pre-rock period. All will be available to the public for free!

If you have newsworthy stories that you would like to see on Culture in Peril, please leave a comment below or email to cultureinperil (at) gmail (dot) com.  I’m grateful for all input!

Posted in archaeology, culture, Culture in Peril, Footnotes, heritage, museums | Leave a comment

Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Heritage

Melissa Abraham, senior communications specialist at the J. Paul Getty Trust, posted an article, “What Do You Mean, ‘Sustainability and Cultural Heritage?,” in which she discusses sustainable development as it relates to the preservation of cultural resources. Sustainable development, according to Ms. Abraham, is “meeting the world’s current needs by using what we already have, so that we’re not compromising the resources of future generations.” She rightly notes that this forward-looking, long-term heritage conservation strategy has innumerable benefits to our environmental, economic, and social well-being. Ms. Abraham cites an example from Nevada City, California, a town which has capitalized on its rich history by incorporating many of its Gold Rush-era structures into local business opportunities. Sustainably conserved, the historic district of Nevada City is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and considered to be among the best-preserved towns of the West. (Check out this brochure for a walking tour of Nevada City.)

The Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, formerly the Bankside Power Station

An important phrase to consider when discussing cultural conservation (or cultural sustainability) is “adaptive reuse,” the process that changes a disused or ineffective item into a new item that can be used for a different purpose. I think adaptive reuse is the concept alluded to but never mentioned in Ms. Abraham’s article. In this burgeoning interdisciplinary field–a combination of heritage preservation, architecture, and community development–adaptive reuse is a key to preserving a structure while propping it up for new use. The preservation of historic buildings and other cultural resources provides a window into how our built environment had been structured in the past as well as gives a vision of where they fit into our future. Where a building is no long able to function with its original purpose, a readapted use may be the only way to preserve its heritage significance [1]. In all successful cases of adaptive reuse, there is minimal impact on the heritage significance of the resource and its setting. Adaptive reuse is self-defeating if it fails to protect the building’s heritage value–its appearance; its social, cultural, or historic meaning; or its fundamental nature.

Adaptive reuse circumvents the process of demolition and reconstruction, reducing waste and thus allowing for the reincorporation of old materials without wasting time and money or compromising environmental conditions. In this way, the original building retains its “embodied energy,” that is the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the acquisition of natural resources to product delivery, including mining, manufacturing of materials and equipment, transport and administrative functions. Water, light, and heat systems can be upgraded, too. Socially, adaptive reuse can restore and maintain the heritage significance of a building and help to ensure its survival, rather than falling into disrepair through neglect. Communities increasingly recognize that future generations will benefit from the protection of cultural heritage resources. Our communal appreciation and self-recognition is enriched not only by the preservation of heritage buildings, but also from their adaptation into accessible and useable public places. Economically, adaptive reuse creates commercially viable investment assets for owners and users. Historic buildings can be “recycled” to suit multiple uses, such as offices, hospitals, businesses, and residences.  Adaptive reuse ensures that previously defunct properties can once again become livable and sustainable.

So, who is interested in adaptive reuse? Builders, developers, architects, community groups, heritage councils, individuals, and all levels of government.

The Getty Conservation Institute will host a free panel discussion, “Sustainability and Heritage in a World of Change,” on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 7:00PM.  More information about the panelists and the Institute can be found here.


[1] Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004.  Adaptive reuse: preserving our past, building our future.

Posted in adaptive reuse, cultural conservation, cultural sustainability, culture, heritage, historic preservation, National Historic Landmark, Tate Modern | Leave a comment

Baig’s Forts and Palaces Photobook Released To Much Fanfare

Amita Baig’s 256-page photo book Forts and Palaces of India was officially released to the public at an event attended by a long list of celebrities and superstars.  The crowd lauded the author for the 25 years she has dedicated to cultural heritage protection and preservation in India, and they praised the photography team for illuminating the book with over 300 color photos.  The book launch was an opportunity to celebrate a work as much as a message.  Baig said, “I strongly feel that we need to develop a positive attitude towards our cultural heritage and not simply treat them as picture postcards. Forts and Palaces of India depicts the richness of such monuments in India and even presents how they came into being and are still as beautiful as they have been even after so many years of their existence.”
Jaisalmer Fort, built in 1156AD in Indian state of Rajastan,
and one of the largest forts in the world (Photo: Adrian Sulc) 
Posted in Amita Baig, architecture, endangered sites, heritage, India, preservation | Leave a comment