Forum: What is the Purpose of a Museum Collection?

Welcome to the inaugural posting of the Plinth Forum.  The forum is a site of discourse on issues involving museum practice and museum professionals.  Our goal is to survey a wide range of opinions from people working in a variety of museum occupations.  Initially we see this work as written essays (with hyperlinks to relevant materials).  Over time, however, we hope to expand our range of discursive practices, to take advantage of our digital platform and to make use of tools like YouTube, Pinterest, and other forms of web-based social media.  For now, please enjoy the essays below.

Erik Greenberg, Ph.D., Forum Manager


This quarter’s topic: “What is the purpose of a museum collection?”

This past summer has been witness to a surprising amount of press on the collections management practices of museums.   Beginning in June of this year, several newspapers wrote pieces on the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ sanction of the Delaware Art Museum for its practice of deaccessioning works of art that it then sold to help close a significant budget deficit. In August, the Boston Globe wrote a lengthy piece on the rental practices of the Museum of Fine Art (MFA).  According to the story, the MFA has rented several of its most important pieces to for-profit exhibition companies, and in so doing, raised some $5 million in revenue.

The sale of museum collections for any purpose other than the purchase of additional collections pieces is, by industry standards, a serious breach of ethics.  Still, as more and more museums are forced to make difficult and painful financial decisions, the ethics of deaccessioning prove more complex and nuanced. Since the economic collapse of 2008, most museums have been under considerable financial stress.  Too many of us have witnessed reductions in staff, pay cuts, or even the closing of longstanding institutions.  Faced with these challenges, it is not beyond reason for some powerfully burdened institutions to think about their collections as financial assets capable of keeping the museum afloat.

And yet, in many ways, a museum is its collection.  The collection is the heart of a museum’s identity, what it’s known for, and, above all, museum staff and trustees have an ethical obligation to protect, conserve, and exhibit their collections. To sell off, or in some way remove for profit, this critical element of an institution can feel very much like a betrayal of the museum and its public.  Indeed, as Graham Beal (director of the Detroit Institute of Arts--DIA) has observed, a museum’s choice to sell off some portion of its collection demonstrates a lack of foresight that can threaten an institution’s legacy for years to come.  Beal notes that during the Great Depression of the 1930s, had the DIA decided to sell off some of its collection to make ends meet, museum staff might have chosen to sell off its then recently acquired Van Gogh, thus depriving today’s museum-goers the privilege and pleasure of seeing that important work (click here to see images of five Van Goghs in the DIA collection).

Nevertheless, the challenges facing museums today are powerful and, in some cases, threaten the very existence of certain institutions.  And so, while museum ethics forbid (as in the case of the Delaware Museum of Art) or frown upon (as in the case of the MFA) the sale or rental of a museum’s collection, one must wonder if there isn’t a greater ethical peril in a distressed museum not looking for some way to capitalize on their collections in an effort to support its operations.

Beyond ethical and economic considerations, other factors, notably changing museological practice, may suggest that museums should rethink their relationship with their collections. Numerous museum professionals (including me) have written about the need to find new approaches to visitor engagement.  In many instances, these approaches are less dependent upon, or completely eschew, the exhibition of collection pieces, relying instead on public programs, web-based exhibitions, and thoughtfully designed, interactive installations.  Science museums have been doing this for years, but other institutions—typically encyclopedic art museums, history museums, and others—have been less willing to jettison their use of collections to educate their public and stimulate visitor engagement. Professional inertia aside, we know from countless studies that museum audiences are aging, and if we do not develop new interpretive approaches, our institutions will fail to court and cultivate the next generation of museum goers. A careful consideration of the scope and purpose of museum collections, then, must be a part of our discussions in reimagining the twenty-first (and twenty-second) century museum.

With the above thoughts as backdrop, we ask our Forum contributors to tell us, “What is the purpose of a museum collection?”  Is it the heart and soul of a museum?  Can it be thought of as a financial asset to support the institution in difficult times?  Do museums even need collections, as recent shifts in museology require alternative models for museums that focus more on design and programming and less on art and artifacts, or is there a role for collections in new models? We look forward to learning from you.

This quarter’s participants are Laura Mitchell, Patrick Fredrickson, Jaime Ursic and Catherine Allgor

Mitchell_Photo Fredrickson Ursic Catherine Allgor
Laura Mitchell Patrick Fredrickson Jaime Ursic Catherine Allgor


Erik Greenberg is the Director of Education and Visitor Engagement at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.  He holds a Ph.D. and MA in American history and is particularly interested in the ways in which historians attempt to engage the broader public.

Laura Mitchell

“What is the purpose of a museum collection?”

In many ways, the issues Erik has raised around this question reflect a moment at which our approaches to accessing, organizing, and thinking about cultural material have undergone a massive shift. While scholarship and interpretation have traditionally been dominated by monologues, linear narratives, and institutional authority, we now increasingly look to dialogue, hyperlinking (just look at Wikipedia), and projects that emphasize participation and transparency as models for exchanging knowledge and cultural experiences. With so many of these emergent values stemming from web culture and its broad implications, where do museum collections - which consist of physical objects, linked to and housed in highly specific physical spaces - fit in? Where should they fit in?

As someone who engages with collections in many ways - as a graduate student, as a museum visitor, as a writer, as an intern or freelancer -  and is on the younger side within the much-discussed millennial cohort, I find myself considering this question from all kinds of angles. Erik has highlighted several angles that have loomed large in museum discourse lately, such as controversies over selling or renting out objects in collections and movements toward programs- and exhibitions-based, rather than strictly collections-based, models for museum practice. Ultimately, I think an institution’s navigation of these difficult issues is closely tied to the framework of networks - a concept with deep roots both in web culture and in the ways in which collections have always operated.

Collections are groups of networked objects, all of which have affinities with other objects, connections to people and places, and stories to tell. Some of these stories take place within the museum; others extend far beyond the walls. When thinking about this, I’m drawn to one of the most dramatic examples of a collection that makes up the “heart of a museum’s identity,” to use Erik’s phrase: the eclectic collection at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which famously cannot be moved from the display arrangement established by the museum’s namesake. While these stipulations transcend standard museum ethical limitations, the Gardner presents an interesting metaphor for the role of collections: in 2012, the museum gave the “palace” that houses the collection a new neighbor, a glass-encased building that (to quote Wikipedia, like a true millennial) “includes spaces for visitor services, concerts, special exhibitions, and education and landscape programs, furthering Isabella Gardner's legacy in art, music, and horticulture while reducing 21st-century strain on the collection and galleries.” “21st-century strain” here refers to architectural issues, but the space responds to the cultural aspects of “21st-century strain” on collections and collecting institutions as well. Inside Mrs. Gardner’s “palace,” her collection remains in place, allowing visitors to engage with these works and the story of their collector. Just across the way, however, visitors can try their hand at art making, peruse materials that offer new contexts for works in the collection, and engage with exhibitions produced by contemporary artists who draw from the Gardner’s collections through the museum’s residency program - all ways of developing the network of stories that surrounds the collection. The new building’s transparent walls simultaneously allow visitors to gain a new vantage point on a place-bound collection and to look out into the world beyond this collection’s home.

I’m certainly not proposing that every museum rush out to build gleaming new wings, but the process the building represents, one centered on interpreting an institutional mission, has relevance for nearly all museums and collecting institutions. Of course, institutional missions provide core values and guideposts, perhaps never more than in times when difficult decisions are needed – it’s mission that lies at the heart of an institution. In a 21st-century context, a question that might be asked in connection with considerations of museums’ missions might be: “Where do we fit into various networks?” or, more specifically, “What kinds of interactions between our objects and the wider networks they belong to will best support our mission?”There’s no one-fits-size-all answer to this question. In various museum contexts, collections can open incredible experiences: in a historic house museum, a collection can let us see life through the eyes of someone who lived generations ago; in a modern art museum, we can come face-to-face with the products of diverse making processes and consider these processes in new ways; in an encyclopedic museum, we can get glimpses of vast swaths of the world within one building.

Of course, collections aren’t the sum total of museum practice, and exhibitions that bring objects from various institutions into conversation, artist-driven installations that activate spaces, innovative public programs, and other initiatives open up experiences that speak to the core of museum missions in exciting ways. Already, institutions approach their collections in a huge range of ways - some, like the recently updated Cooper Hewitt, make a point of showing their collections’ place in wider networks and of encouraging a playful approach. Others bring their collection objects into contact with broader stories through artist interventions or projects that mix historical and contemporary, or they provide digital access to the often-unseen processes and objects that aren’t on display in galleries. And, of course, still others eschew collections-focused practice in favor of mounting ambitious exhibitions, providing spaces for artists to work publicly, or engaging publics in participatory experiences and programs. In the hugely diverse networks that comprise the museum field and the publics it serves, there’s room for a range of approaches, and museums should have degrees of both freedom and responsibility to think deeply, honestly, and holistically about the approach that will allow them to best serve their mission. For organizations under pressure, like DIA and the Delaware Art Museum, this is of course particularly relevant.

When they’re doing their jobs well, institutional leaders have deep understandings of their missions and the particular publics they serve. It’s these understandings that should shape the way one applies a mission and a collection: for a community-based museum that serves a public that has more access to school tours than to fast internet, for example, access to objects and to cultural experiences may mean something very different than it does for a large museum that has a connected global audience. In many ways, the purpose of a museum collection is to open: to open connections, open exploration, open deep engagement, open learning, open dialogue, open discovery. To make sure they are truly fulfilling their missions, it’s up to museums to think through the pathways they can open, through collections or otherwise, within the networks that operate both within and beyond museum walls.


Laura Mitchell is Plinth's editor. Beyond Plinth, she is a researcher, writer, and M.A. candidate in Public Humanities at Brown University.


Patrick Fredrickson

Collections have long been the lifeblood of museums, and rightly so. It is often through the collection itself that the mission of a museum is realized. However, the current model of museum collections, which includes the ethical limitations placed upon the use of these collections, was born from practices that are rapidly changing. Philanthropic models, approaches to visitor engagement, methods of information sharing—even museums’ philosophy towards artifacts—are impacted by technological innovations. The singular act of bringing objects into a collection both changes an object’s purpose and places a financial burden on an institution. Just as the first of these issues was rethought, at least partially, through the process of repatriation in a postcolonial context, we are now at a time in which the latter needs also to be reassessed.

The continued collecting of artifacts requires continued growth. At minimum, this means continually improving personnel, collections space, and conservation resources to preserve the collection. However, a collection of artifacts does not make a museum: museums exist when collections are made accessible to the public. Given the modes of access to knowledge that are now widely available, we have to question the relevance and sustainability of a business model based on collecting artifacts or, at least, the role of a brick-and-mortar museum in this context.

If the role of museums is to work in the public trust, how is this role fulfilled to reach those without access to a museum? Or a particular museum, or a particular collection, or a particular artifact? After all, doesn’t access to collections play some role in the code of ethics that states that museums shouldn’t sell their collection to raise funds, regardless of how necessary such funds are? We need only read Detroit Institute of Arts director Graham Beal’s justification for not selling artwork in financially difficult times. He argues that if DIA had sold a Van Gogh, the institution “would have been diminished by the loss of masterpieces we could never hope to retrieve!”

His statement is true for a particular time. Until the 1980s, if an artifact re-entered the private market, public knowledge of and access to it could be severely limited. Now, however, I can find information on such an object at my leisure. Online, sitting at home in Los Angeles, I have access to Vincent Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Postman Roulin”, owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts. At least, I have access to the image of this work, along with minimal information about it. I see Van Gogh was Dutch, lived from 1853–1890, and painted this work in 1888, with oil on canvas. I see the dimensions of the canvas and the frame in which it is housed, and that I can, presumably, contact the Department of European Painting. It was gifted to the museum by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Buhl Ford II, perhaps as the 25th acquisition in 1996 (if I’m reading the accession number correctly.) And, finally, I see the provenance of the painting.

Granted, I don’t have access to the texture of the brushstrokes, or the exactness of color. If I were studying the technology of the time or techniques employed by the artist, such information would be impossible to see online. However, I’m not entirely certain the information shared by DIA online extends the museum’s mission and allows me to find “personal meaning in art.” The bare-bones information available online advances my knowledge of the piece very little. Presumably, I’ll need to visit Detroit and hope that some wall text or docent tour will extend my knowledge and create personal meaning. If not, perhaps I’ll be so moved as to purchase a book about Van Gogh to learn even more.

Or, I can visit the Museum of Modern Art online to read about a 1989 exhibition they organized about “The Postman”. At, I find general information about Van Gogh’s relationship with the Postman and his family (evidently, he painted this subject and his family often during his lifetime). I raise these points not to challenge the lack of information provided by DIA (though seriously, not even a bit of text?). Rather, it is to point out the nature of access we now have to information. Through a quick search, I can travel across time and space to find information collected by a variety of sources on a single object.

Granted, the experience of seeing a physical artifact is quite different from a picture. The scale of a telegraph key is difficult to imagine online, as is the playfulness of an Alexander Calder mobile, or the cracks that now disrupt the flat planes of a Mondrian painting. But when the Boston Globe claims the Museum of Fine Arts’ rental practice treats masterpieces as cash cows, do we ignore the amount of cash involved in traveling to see the real thing? By renting a painting to other institutions, not only does the object reach a broader public, but cash that would be distributed across airlines, hotels, cafes, and transportation (corporations that are likely national in operation, not local) is instead going directly to the museum. The object acts as a “cash cow” either way.

As technology expands access to information, our approach to sharing information needs to change. Better yet, our fear of losing an object, either through sale, repatriation, or end of life, needs to change. If an object is returned to its place or culture of origin, not only does it once again become a living artifact, it can still be studied and new scholarship can still be shared with the public. Videos and interviews of the object in use can be shared, whether this means an interview with a Hopi Katsina maker or with an Upper East Side New York art collector. Through continuing advances of three-dimensional scanning and printing, reproductions can be made for study and public interaction in numerous locations worldwide. A museum can build its public trust without the need to increase its collections holdings. If we are willing to shift the role of museums away from ownership, we can address current financial struggles, broaden our public reach, and build unknown philanthropic and financial opportunities.


Patrick Fredrickson oversees the design and implementation of narrative experiences at the Autry National Center. His team of designers provide support and direction for development of the Autry's identity and the value of the visitors experience. This work includes the development of furniture, interactive experiences, graphic design, and digital storytelling for exhibitions, galleries, marketing materials, and public spaces. Working with UCLA Extension and Woodbury University, Patrick teaches courses as a Lecturer on topics of Advertising and Experience Design. Prior to working at the Autry, Patrick worked in the Exhibition Design Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelors degree in Fine Arts from the University of New Mexico.


Jaime Ursic

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.”[1]

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.”

[1] 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.


Catherine Allgor.

Our fearless leader, Erik Greenberg, has tackled this number’s question from a very practical standpoint, one reflective of concerns in the news.  My approach will be, if you will, more philosophical.  To wit, “What is the purpose of a museum collection?” or, more cheekily, “Who cares?”

Erik engaged the topic in the very real context of institutions in dire situations, ones that force the consideration of collections as assets.  I am fortunate enough to work at an institution that is in far from dire circumstances.  The Huntington’s collections in Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens are well established and well supported by the community.  For the moment, at least, we are safe from the kinds of decisions faced by the Delaware Art Museum and others.  But our comfortable position does not let us off the hook—rather, we must grapple with the same issues, albeit in different ways.

The short answer to the question posed by Erik is that the purpose of a museum collection is to live.  That is, all the wonderful things that make up a collection are for nothing if they are not expressed by and for human beings.  On the face of it, this statement seems like heresy in the context of that compulsive collector, Henry Huntington.  And to be sure, we at The Huntington continue the collecting tradition.  (As an example, when HH died, he left about 2 million rare books and manuscripts; now the number is closer to 9 million.  On the Art side, well, our latest exhibition is called “More American Art.” Enough said.)

But all of us, even the Directors of Collection Divisions, know that these objects and plants are only of value when they are living and giving.  The scholars mine the books and manuscripts in order to advance knowledge, the botanists and scientists use the past to ensure the future, preserving species and forging new conservation practices, and the art on the walls and on the grounds inspires and uplifts us all.

The questions that drive the humanities center around what it means to be human.  What do we all have in common?  What gives life meaning?  What is life’s purpose?

Our collections don’t necessarily supply answers, but they point to ways to engage these questions on a profound level.  When you read a letter from a grieving, 18th century mother, you understand that it is emotion—the joy of love, the devastation of loss—that binds us together.  Walking through a gallery of YWCA girls clustered around the massive sculpture, Zenobia in Chains, created by Harriet Hosmer during a time when no one could believe a woman could create such a piece, you see young faces transformed (watch with them here).  As families and children pour into the Chinese Garden on a warm summer day, it is so clear that we humans are tied to the natural world in ways that we still don’t fully understand.

Make no mistake—we are not complacent at The Huntington.  All of us in the museum world read about the troubles at our sister institutions with sympathy and shivers.  “There but for the grace of God . . ..”  And, of course, we all felt that shadow during the 2008-and-beyond downturn.  But I hope, should trouble come our way at some future time, that we will be able to stand up and defend what we do, what we have.  We collect and exhibit things because when you add the people, there is life.

Catherine Allgor

Catherine Allgor, theNadine and Robert A. Skotheim Director of Education at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, is also a Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside and a UC Presidential Chair.  She attended Mount Holyoke College and received her Ph.D. with distinction from Yale University.  Her first book, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (University Press of Virginia, 2000), won the James H. Broussard First Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.  Her political biography, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (Henry Holt, 2006), was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.  The year 2012 saw the publication of Dolley Madison: The Problem of National Unity (Westview Press) and The Queen of America: Mary Cutts's Life of Dolley Madison (University of Virginia Press).  President Obama has appointed Allgor to a presidential commission, The James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation.