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?