Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Lending-Museum by Maureen

Last week, Jean and I began to explore a new concept in museums -- the “lending museum”.

The idea emerged during a discussion about our potential collaboration with an organization which helps to found community libraries in Latin America. As we examined the question of the compatibility of the work Heritance does with museums and the work this NGO does with libraries, a question arose:

What if museums were more like libraries? What if museum objects, like library books, could circulate freely among the organization’s members?

In his previous French language Heritance blog, Jean introduced the notion of the open collection, a notion that has been realized with success by some museums, including the Jewish Museum in Vienna. The open collection is one way in which a museum can overcome the problem that Jean characterizes as the “unexploited richness of most museums’ reserves”. In a traditional museum only a small percentage of a collection is available to the public at any one time and rarely does the museum display all of its objects. What if you were to push the notion of the open collection a notch higher and consider making those objects available for a loan to individuals?

There is somewhat of a precedent to this idea in the concept of the “museum in a box” -- a program, which has been successfully implemented by some museums to bring the museum to visitors who cannot visit the museum themselves. The basic idea behind a “museum in the box” is that the museum provides a turnkey kit for schools, which includes: a collection of objects organized according to a theme, plans for their presentation and some curriculum materials for the teacher and students. Sometimes the box includes objects, which can be handled by the students.

The lending-museum we propose is like a giant museum in a box, minus the turnkey kit. We propose putting objects on loan for “good use”. In the case of a piece of art, the user would put it to “good use” as art, for example on display in their living room or office. In the case of tools and machines, the user would put them to “good use” (i.e. make them do work) and return them in as good a working condition as possible. Just as a reader handles books, which are sometimes returned slightly worn and eventually worn out, the borrower at the lending-museum checks out the objects for use. Like a library, the museum repairs, replaces, and retires it collections over time.

We propose that the museum have a second purpose, namely to record the stories of the objects and the people who use them? As a recorder of stories -- to include text, sound and images -- the museum would have the rare and potentially rich opportunity of simultaneously building a written, oral and material history of the community. To borrow the term from Arjun Appudurai, a lending-library with the capacity for tracking the ojects and stories of its community, could become a center of ethno-history. Such a ground-breaking institution would capture the interest of people around the world, while serving its own community as a rich and authentic archive of contemporary history.

The techonology already exists to support this kind ethno-history center, for example, the web-based object blog developed for Handmeon (www.handmeon.org). Handmeon enables any person (or museum) to easily create a website for an object (complete with text, photos, film, sound and music) and to update the site with each user’s story. The only tools necessary are an Internet connection and a computer. Since the interface is simple, it requires no special training. At this point, the only barriers to founding a lending-museum are social. Will the communities want it? Assuming they do, will the world of museum stakeholders accept it and support it?

It seems that the lending-museum flies in the face of the traditional museum. After all, isn’t a museum supposed to keep safe the world’s heritage by removing the objects from circulation? We don’t suggest that all museums start lending their objects. (Imagine the loan of a fragile papyrus books and a 2000-year-old mummy or solid gold masks and elaborately etched and painted ceramic vases.) We do suggest, however, that the dominant conception of a museum is too narrow to be adequate in contemporary society.

The museum, like all institutions is an expression of its current social values, as well as, its historical roots. What constitutes a “real” museum for many people today, including many directors of prestigious museums, dates to the Victorian era when various agencies, notably national governments, erected public spaces in which to display model art objects as part of a social program. In the case of England, the government set out to shape their lowest classes into productive participants in the Industrial Revolution of Colonial British society by exposing them to ideal art forms and inculcating in them a taste and desire for more and more expensive material objects. Since the 1900’s museums have evolved in many ways.

The basic premise underlying the dominant concepton of a museum collection, however, is still Victorian. Traditionally, the museum, as the trustee of the world’s heritage, manages a collection on behalf of the public -- often to the point of sequestering it. The museum has assumed the role of in loco parentis for the public and most often has received the endorsement of the public. (If private and public money counts as a show of support, there is no denying that museums have a lot of support from at least certain sectors of the public.) The endorsement is for good reason, because in many cases, this model has benefited humanity, by making many objects made available to the public which may have been otherwise been lost through theft, destruction, deterioration, or private acquisition.

The Victorian model for the museum and the rapport it establishes betwen the museum and the public, however, is not the only rapport nor only model available to us today. Jean and I propose admitting the lending-museum into the club of museum models, as a compliment to, not a replacement for, the Victorian model. The 19th Century conception of a museum and collection which is at hand, is derived from a colonial, nation-building world which believe is too narrow to apply to all of the museums in the world today. In order to re-invent museums in our own image, or the image of the open society we envision, we believe it is important to scrutinize -- and to ask others to scrutinize alongside us -- people's working assumptions about museums.

Since it is difficult, if not impossible to examine one's assumptions, perhaps it would help to participate in the following thought experiment: Under which conditions might it seem plausible that a museum lend its collection or specific objects to individuals? What would the collection of such a lending-museum look like? Would it have to be brand new collection designed for that purpose? Could an existing museum retrofit its collection or some of its selected objects to be made available on loan to individuals? What changes would a lending museum affect on its community, on museums in general and on museum visitors worldwide?

This thought experiment, although also potentially amusing, is not a mere exercise. It has the potential to form our conceptions of an adequate museum and affect what we expect from museums. Museums as we know them are not a given, since museum, like all institutions, are social constructs and have no essential nature other than the one than the people living today accord them. Given the work of Heritance with museums, these musings can quickly lead to realities. It would be interesting to hear what readers think about our lending-museum and ethno-history ideas.

What do you think people about the idea of creating new museums, which lend their objects for use, to their members?

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