What is the purpose of a museum collection?
This question has turned over in my mind continuously since Forum Manager Erik Greenberg first proposed it. What is a collection in the first place? Hmmm. It is a group of things. Often, it is someone’s group of things. What makes this group of things collectible? Desirable? Is it valuable and by what standards? According to whom or what?
With these questions in the background, collection management and care are rightly held to high ethical standards in order to support and preserve objects of cultural heritage. Today’s economic climate presents formidable, high-stakes testing for a financially strapped institution. If a museum collection “is the heart of a museum’s identity, what it’s known for,” as Erik posits, stakeholders “have an ethical obligation to protect, conserve, and exhibit their collections.” Under pressure, the implications of these obligations can be difficult to work through: the selling or renting out of key collection highlights can keep an institution in the black and allow it to stay open to the public, yet the professional museum community may ostracize the institution for taking this step. As I considered this challenge and the role of museum collections, the importance of the interpreter in the processes at the core of work with collections brought to mind Martin Heidegger and his work on the “essence of art.” As Heidegger writes in The Origin of the Work of Art, “the artwork and the artist exist in a dynamic where each appears to be a provider of the other. Neither is without the other. Nevertheless, neither is the sole support of the other.”
This is where the hermeneutic circle began to come into focus for me as I thought about Erik’s question. Theory and learning from countless museum studies courses, art history seminars, and studio classes emphasized that neither observation nor description can be 100% free of the observer’s interpretations, presuppositions, experiences, projections, values, and expectations. Heidegger writes that artworks are not simple representations of the way things are, but actually produce a community’s shared understanding. Do the collections that preserve and display these artworks inform the same shared understanding? Thinking about this as a working artist and museum educator, I believe that museums provide safe spaces for collections to be continuously interpreted and re-interpreted, and that collections in these spaces create systems in which people can interact and engage deeply. Museums allow collections to continue to live, even as the purposes, experiences, and lenses that surround them continuously shift.
If everything is dependent on the experiences of the interpreter, where do we start when thinking about collections? A collection is first interpreted by its original collector. For instance, J. Paul Getty purchased loads of French decorative arts. Some scholars write that he was interested in French decorative arts, while other rumors persist that French decorative arts were inexpensive and not in demand, so Getty purchased as much as possible simply because he loved a deal. As a few decades passed, Getty’s collection was interpreted and re-interpreted by scholars and curators. Then another school of thought surfaced, another building was built, and other meanings are gleaned from Getty’s collection. What is the purpose of his collection? The purpose, I believe as with any collection, shifts and adapts, as it is a reflection of the time for which it is questioned.
When collections, like this one, are put on display in museum settings, the curator’s interpretation of the original interpretation is yet again interpreted by each museumgoer that stops and looks at the object. Add the museum facilitator into the experience and this interpretation of an interpretation of an object in a collection (got that?) is dizzying. As an artist and educator, I indulge in looking and teaching from the objects that were collected by one person and subsequently curated by another. Presently, I teach with a collection that Paul Mellon built, with the help of Basil Taylor, and then gifted to his alma mater. It is an incredible experience to share with a contemporary audience the very first painting Mellon purchased while standing in in a space that Mellon commissioned, surrounded by other works he bought and collected in his lifetime.
Of course, “collections” are not isolated to the museum alone, and interactions with collections don’t always involve this level of physical proximity. Collections can be found in everything from libraries and retail clothing to countless examples on the Internet: digital collections of writings, poems, music, drawings, and so on. Thinking back to Archduke Ferdinand II’s “Chamber of Art and Curiosities” at Ambras Castle, what began as his fancy for weaponry grew to a full-fledged “kunstkammer” in which objects of curiosity, artworks, toys, “scientific” items, architectural ruins, and natural oddities were collected, displayed and could be studied. In today’s digital age, sites such as Pinterest have added a digital dimension to building a cabinet of curiosities. Again, Heidegger’s theory comes to mind: in many ways, Ferdinand II’s collection has helped to inform this contemporary understanding of a collection. In our contemporary context, collections that live in museums occupy a distinct niche. Reflecting their time and community’s shared interests, museums should be vibrant and vital parts of a greater network of collections, offering something unique in the meaning-making processes they facilitate.
The purpose or “essence” of a museum collection is similar to the “essence” of art. Just as art has an independent, subjective meaning for each maker, and each viewer, a collection has meanings for the collector, the viewers, scholars, educators, and curators. The collection can be simply addressed as evidence of what interested the collector at that time. Going deeper, however, in the space of a museum a collection becomes the system in which curators, scholars, educators, and museum-goers can make connections, be reminded of past experiences, or be inspired to think of something novel. I work with objects within a museum collection to facilitate an experience for the museumgoer. There is no map or expectation checklist for how to experience an art object, only the present moment in which one looks at and ponders the artwork, and then moves to consider the next object.
Henry Rollins said, “I know that collector types can be a pain in the neck and seem perpetually frozen in time…but someone has to look out for the past, lest it slip away forever.” Many a museum collection has struggled and continues to struggle to look out for the past. The challenge is for the boards and administration to creatively problem-solve and to think through, with a contemporary perspective, how to protect and perpetuate the past. Each day the past grows and life speeds up, producing more objects and ephemera to collect and study. Working in a museum, I have a close-up view of the possibilities when collections have a home in which to continue to exist and interact over time, and, in a way, I have become a collector of museum experiences.
A museum collection’s purpose shifts, stretches, and sometimes outgrows its original mission. That being said, purposes, people, and belief systems change with time, place, and experiences. Agendas come and go as well as taste and trends. In the midst of all of these changes, the museum collects objects and gives them a safe place to exist. As long as the collected objects are available for posterity to look at, study, and reflect on, I believe the art objects and the collection will provide for one another: “Neither is without the other. Nevertheless, neither is the sole support of the other.”
 Heidegger, Martin; trans. David Farrell Krell (2008). “The Origin of the Work of Art”. Martin Heidegger: The Basic Writings. New York: HarperCollins. P. 143-146.
Jaime Ursic is an artist and Assistant Curator of Education at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT. She develops and oversees programs for special needs audiences, docents, students, and supports object-based gallery teaching.