Do History Museums Still Need Objects? I’m Not Sure

I’ve been pondering the central question of Rainey Tisdale’s article (“Do History Museums Still Need Objects?”), since History News published it last summer. Our museum staff members have had some delightful (and some not so delightful) discussions about it.  We even sent a copy to our advisory board for them to discuss. Many of them, though, feared we wanted to deaccession our entire collection.


Here are the article’s main points:

  • we need objects, but we must do something great with them;
  • we may not need the objects (or multiple copies of objects) we’ve collected;
  • we need to restore the links between objects and places;
  • we need a different model for access;
  • do history museums still need curators?

After attending Rainey’s session at October’s AASLH Annual Meeting, I started thinking about this issue again.  That’s when I got into real trouble.

Our museum staff spent most of October moving our collections from a dilapidated building into a new storage facility.  This gave us a rare opportunity to review EVERYTHING in our collection.  We found (and, frankly, had suspected) that many objects were 20th century mass-productions lacking any provenance.

We’re not alone, particularly in the West, where many communities developed and boomed during the era of mass production.  How do we handle these items?  The easy solution might be to keep the objects with provenance and to deaccession ones that don’t.

But even the objects with provenance may be problematic. Yes, we have typewriters owned by every mayor during the 1920s. But do we need all five of them?  Do these objects have a story? If so, could one typewriter tell all of those stories?

Or take another example, something every museum has: Singer sewing machines. We have at least six of them. The problem is:

  • they drain our museum’s resources;
  • they take up valuable storage space;
  • they’re ridiculously heavy to move to a new storage facility; and
  • we’ll never show all six at the same time (unless we open the highly anticipated blockbuster Singer sewing machine exhibit…).

I admit, I don’t have an answer to these questions. I do know we can’t collect every sewing machine and typewriter that comes our way, regardless of the stories connected to them.  So what are we to do?

3 Responses to “Do History Museums Still Need Objects? I’m Not Sure”

  1. December 11, 2012 at 2:09 pm, Bruce Teeple said:

    Many small museums face this problem of deciding what to keep in a collection.

    Periodically reviewing and rewriting your mission statement could help resolve a lot of this turmoil Nate’s blog describes so well. By asking yourself, “Does this contribute to mission fulfillment?”, you have a standard against which you can measure every object’s worth, as well as every action you take.


  2. December 13, 2012 at 1:03 am, Bryan Butler said:

    Our Museum faces the same type of problem of deciding what to keep in our collection which in our case the objects are much larger and cumbersome than most Museums.
    Our Museum displays the history of trucks and the Trucking Industry.
    In our case we have designated a “Core Collection” of objects which are used to display the evolution and progression of the manufacturing technology of trucks through history.
    It is not a complete collection but continues to gain completion as we receive new donations. We accept donations of objects whether they are relevant to our collection or not. If the objects are not relevant we sell the items to enthusiasts or trade them for objects that are relevant. In cases where we have redundant or duplicate objects, we contact other Truck Museums and offer to donate or trade to help fulfill their collection.
    The deciding factor in this is dependent on the objects condition. Very few of these donations are received without the need of restoration and the time and expense to do so is a major consideration for our decision.
    In the case of our Library donations we receive must be relevant to trucks, their history or the trucking Industry or they too are donated, sold or in some cases disposed of.


  3. December 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm, Bob Beatty said:

    Thanks Nate, for continuing the discuission.

    Wanted to point to Rainey’s full article and also the thorough online conversation we had at the History News: Your Turn online community



Leave a Reply