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Dinosaurs and Collections

2010 June 29
by Sheila

This week, I returned to the American Association of Museums conference after a six-year hiatus and was reminded of the theatricality of museums and the importance of presentation in museum design. Mechanical dinosaurs caught the eyes of museum professionals who walked by in the Expo who smiled as some shook their heads. Museum entertain, for sure, and are places of learning, but how often do academic scholars seek out museums—looking beyond the moving dinosaurs—to research in collections?

This question got me thinking about Steve Conn’s Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926. Conn argues that as museums emerged in post-Civil War US, museums were central to knowledge production and shaped public understanding of natural history, art, and history through objects. By the 1920s, the “object-based epistemology” developed by museums was disappearing from American intellectual life as the center of scholarship creation moves into universities and museums focused more on entertaining audiences.

Newly-formed scholarly associations sought to professionalize practices in the early twentieth century, such as the American Historical Association which began to value scholarship produced from documentary evidence and supported training new historians in those methods. The effort to professionalize separated historians working in universities from curators and collectors. Conn saw these developments as a shift away from object-based interpretation in academic scholarship. For example, collector Henry Ford opened his own museum drawing from his personal collections that relied on his nostalgic vision of the past. That vision included entertaining visitors through objects and reconstructed towns and scenes, which contrasted with how “professional” historians did their work.

Today, academic historians incorporate a variety of sources in their research, participate on museum advisory committees, and contribute to museum exhibit development. But, do academic historians go to museums to do their research? I recently posed this question on Twitter. Henry Ford Museum Curator, Suzanne Fischer (not following in Ford’s footsteps as a PhD in American Studies), responded that part of the problem is lack of object literacy. I think she is right. How can we change that?

Digitized books, library catalogs, historic photographs are available online, but most museum collections are not. Museums are still woefully behind in sharing their wonderful sources online, which further isolates those collections from researchers who are increasingly doing research online. Academics, researchers, graduate students have to spend travel money wisely and may not be able to visit multiple museums and archive for sources. Searching eBay can be a quicker more reliable way to do object research than in museum collections because of that accessibility.

With one major Commons Projects looming, (Smithsonian Commons), and some museums releasing their APIs this tide could be slowly changing. History museums in particular have a great opportunity to open their collections to everyone, including history scholars who have been reluctant to use objects as primary sources. Insuring that collections are available for digital research in a Commons, for instance, will expose objects to scholars who probably would never have known they existed in a museum collection to then view in person.

Museums already maintain databases that contains object information and usually each entry is illustrated with an image. There are ways to expose that data–even with all of its warts. Visitors, volunteers, and staff already share incorrect information about collections everyday and we cannot control this. So, as many others have argued, let go and let it flow.

My answer is not original and sounds too simple, but can provide a way to hack the academy to bring the physical object analysis back into history scholarship. We can encourage scholars to mine these objects and their metadata if objects exist in a digital form. Commons portals allow sources from libraries, museums, and archives to intermingle. If history museum objects are not in such a portal—especially from smaller institutions–those sources will continue to be marginalized and be left out of historical arguments and scholarship.

The mechanical dinosaur that functions as entertainment in a museum might be viewed by Conn as the embodiment of the continued separation of the academy and the museum. For those of us who already use material culture in our research, we see beyond the dinosaur to find the museums objects that surprise, delight, and enlighten us.

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