The Museum Regarding the Disposition of Objects

by: Lisa Marie Davis, Marist Italy MA Museum Studies, 2013-14

Most children know what a beach bucket is and how to use it. It is typically a brightly colored cylindrical open container used to hold and carry liquids or other objects. For a child this container acts as a tool for discovery, provides a motif for a sandcastle, a way to collect seashells and transport water; it is a container used for recreation. At twenty years old my association with this childhood container was shattered when I met Harriet, a seventeen-year-old Ugandan girl. She had been a victim of medical malpractice and because of this, she was uncontrollably leaking stool and urine. When I met Harriet she had been waiting for two months in Kagando hospital to have surgery. When she came to the hospital the doctor inserted a catheter and gave her a beach bucket; for months she walked around carrying her waste products in this brightly colored open container. It was this moment that I saw this object used for something other than amusement, it was now an object of utility. I felt differently towards this object I once knew and I wanted to understand.

Harriet singing and dancing for me with her beach bucket.
Harriet singing and dancing for me with her beach bucket.

“Museums are the perfect place to experience empathy, to look at the world     through the eyes of others who lived in different places, at different times, and in different circumstances. Objects and images are our business. Every one of them is a potential mnemonic device, a touchstone for memory, an opportunity for important discussion.”[1]

In a museum each viewer will interact with an object in a different way. For me, a beach bucket was a memory of a childhood pastime but for Harriet this object was a memory of a tragic time in her life. Robert R. Archibald in his article “Touching on the Past” brings to the forefront the issue of humanity inside the context of museums. As much as museum professionals are responsible for an exhibition collection, it is the viewer who makes these objects their own. The idea that curators control the outcome of an exhibition viewed by the public is a misconception, because the human experience is delicate and unique to each individual. It is up to museum professionals to be the “preservers, facilitators, conveners so that the conversations can take place and the stories be told and more importantly shared.”[2]

If our calling is to change lives then we as museum professionals must realize museums outside of the conventional institution and start to approach museums as safe places for conversation. How does a museum create this space? How much does the actual physical environment inside a museum, for example, the lighting, seating, temperature and labels affect the viewers’ experience? If museums want people to stop and contemplate an object, then they must provide the public with places for rest. In order to evoke a visceral response from a person, they must feel secure and welcomed in the museum.  Due to the nature of humanity, museums cannot be responsible for the way the public interprets works of art, but instead should invest and be responsible for what it can, such as their employees and the environment they create. When people visit a museum their first interaction will be with the person who they buy their tickets from. This initial interaction is an opportunity to generate this safe place. A visitor should feel valued and therefore customer service is vital for the museum in order to initiate a deeper understanding and conversation. If we want to change lives, we have to start small; we have to start with one.

Museum professionals should be weary of the consumer mentality approach towards works of art. Florence, Italy is a place where people from all over the world come to see renowned works of art. These masterpieces have become icons and in return have distorted the viewer’s interaction to engage with the work of art. Tourists line up and wait hours to lay their eyes upon the David by Michelangelo, yet when they are standing in front of this sculpture they only stand long enough to say that they saw it. As museum professionals we must be cautious to this type of approach and strive to move viewers away from this mentality. How do museums deal with blockbuster exhibitions and how much responsibility falls on the curator? If a museum is promoting the exchange of cultures and deeper awareness of humanity can they do this with a blockbuster exhibition?

Ultimately the goal of a museum should be to create an open space for the viewer to actively participate in the conversation. The museum should act as a mediator by breaking down the preexisting cultural barriers in order to initiate a position of understanding. If the museum wants to radically impact lives, then the emphasis must be placed on creating this safe place; a place of empathy and vulnerability.

[1] Robert R. Archibald, “Touching on the Past” (paper presented at the Social Affordances of Objects Seminar, London, December, 2006).

[2] Archibald, “Touching on the Past.”

Full Citation:

Archibald, Robert R., “Touching on the Past.” Paper presented at the Social Affordances of Objects Seminar, London, December, 2006.

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