New Light on Old Bones

I’ve been looking at the blog of New Light on Old Bones. It’s an innovative, multi-disciplinary research project looking at the cultural, social, and historical context of natural science collections in two venues in North West England; Blackburn Museum, and Rossendale Museum.

They say the project aims to provide museums with a toolkit of methods they can use to better interpret their collections. For me, the issue is also touches on the topic of heritage collections which, for many members of the Ethics Working Group is an ethical issue. The questions surrounds what we do with heritage material which may not be of use as natural history objects, but incredibly important as a cultural object.

How do we measure its worth, and in what context? An example that springs to mind is Phar Lap the famous race horse which now resides in Wellington (skeleton) and Melbourne (skin and heart). As a piece of natural history, it’s just a specimen of Equus caballus, of little importance to natural historians. To cultural historians, however, it’s a subject of warring national prides, a symbol of achievement and evidence of a seedy underbelly that nobody before had imagined existed. While no parts of Phar Lap are destined for the bin, many other less famous, but equally valuable, cultural treasures masquerading as natural history objects are.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of dioramas. If a wall was painted in the 19th Century to display a group of animals to an audience with a certain set of values and expectations, should we in the 21st Century keep it as a piece of cultural history? A historian would argue yes. A museum manager, on the other hand, would likely want to update the space for something more relevant to modern audiences.

When does an object, or grouping of objects transcend what it is and become important for what it means? And who makes that decision?

– Eric

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2 thoughts on “New Light on Old Bones

  1. Some of these themes are absolutely key to NLOB, so hopefully your members will subscribe to the blog and actively take part in discussions around such ideas. I’m sure Mark (or one of us) will, in the future, touch on the very concepts you outline in this post.

  2. Two huge issues there.

    With regards to cultural objects, is it the object or the stories surrounding that object, that are important? To the average museum visitor the skeleton of Phar Lap looks more or less like any other horse. The bones themselves carry little value if they are separated from their context and story. For example, would you, or anyone else notice if Te Papa quietly replaced those bones with a replica? The bones themselves merely act an anchor on which to hang the stories of triumph and legend. Not to generalise too much, but most natural historians would be far more interested in presenting the object, rather than the story.

    How cultures choose to depict themselves, and others, especially in the area of galleries and museums is fascinating. To understand the journey from ‘cabinet of curiosities’ to ‘interactive experience’ reflects our cultural obsessions and how we understand the world. How do you preserve those, but also maintain engagement? Perhaps a museum of museums is what we need? Bit of a niche market!

    Who decides when things become important? Why everyone of course. Don’t people act as curators in their own lives when they frame the tea towel from Blackpool, or the signed All Blacks jersey?

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