Why do museums collect?

Museums collect for several reasons, and these reasons have changed over the many years they have existed. Primarily Museum like collections existed to generate curiosity through the sometimes items contained within to wrench a few coins from the pockets of their patrons. Although these items may not have always been authentic, they generated enough curiosity and profit to continue their productions. I believe not enough credit is given to the shysters and charlatans that had created a museum-like experience through the use of fake mermaids and magical flea circuses. As of late, the reason museums seem to collect is to provide a voice to points of view that may have gone unnoticed. Museum collections allow the local voices, often closely linked to their patrons, with their communities in a more profound way than a photo album or a brief article ever could.

An example of this is provided in the Daedalus article On Museums in a Post-Modern World. The author writes of a museum in Bolivia which “serve as a focal point from cultural pride and sense of ownership over their history.” (Stanish, 147). The article continues, explaining how Bolivian art is not separated from western art. These kinds of categories do not allow one to compare and contrast as quickly. This immediate ability to identify a culture’s unique artistic strengths is a great way to allow outsiders a sense of understanding even if they are not wholly entuned to the pieces.

What is more, small local museums have allowed even more localized and unique cultures to identify and display themselves. Each Museum you visit will illuminate a new variety of person which can further develop your understanding of the world around you. These local museums also allow local cultures to care for their artifacts rather than display them in far off locales that may not treat pieces as they may be intended. 

Overall, I believe museums collect to provide insight into under-display portions of local culture. Many, I included, find museums to be a powerful part of the personality of any town. The Museum illustrates what makes that area of the world unique and why that matters by displaying what matters to that unique part of the world. In this way, a catalog of what is found to be critical can be kept for decades, and someday future historians will be able to look back and imagine how weird baseball must have been. More likely, they will be able to see what kinds of things are held as valuable in our lives, which can help them construct a better idea of what our society looked like. In my eyes, that’s why a museum collects, to capture subjects that are valuable to our society and the specifics of those subjects, allowing future generations to view our curations as gospel when creating visualizations of our time. This is not to say it cannot do the same for its contemporary viewers. Museums highlight what kinds of things in culture people should be paying attention to. Currently the Anchorage Museum is hosting an exhibit on Women of the North which I believe further illustrates my point.







How do you think museums can help future historians?


4 Thoughts to “Curation discussion”

  1. Michael Hubert

    Dylan , thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject.
    I feel that museums will be a integral part of the future and helping those that chose to be historians. it will help by showing things that they can learn from our past the good , the bad and the ugly. museums in this way will be able to help people understand where we need to go from this point and into the future.

  2. Erin Gingrich

    Thank you for sharing some interesting points from a more community/societal perspective that I had not considered. I feel that museums play a very important role with historians and that they actively inform and educate each other in a very symbiotic relationship that is hopefully equitable. I hope that museums can help future historians by being honest, active and clear in there own history with misinformation, missteps, mistakes and the types of correction taken in relation to those actions. Some many learning moments happen when faced with challenges, sometimes these moments can benefit more then those involved when they are openly shared and recognized for what they are. Leaning, building and finding pathways to move forward are challenging but when others have tried to do the same in the past it can provide guidance for what to do and what not to do in the future.

  3. Angela Linn

    Yes Dylan, this is a great point. Museums themselves, and their collections as a unit, stand as artifacts of their time (so meta!) My own dissertation research is looking exactly at this point, how are museums a reflection of our time, society, and values? How do our galleries, programs, organizational charts, and collecting activities serve as a testimony of the current events and challenges we face as individuals and as parts of our communities. How are our operations linked to our historical legacy and what happens if/when we attempt to move away from that legacy and the people who helped to create it? Again, our job is to document our decision-making process, which I hope will help our future historians understand why we make certain decisions about what we collect and how we interpret and preserve it.

  4. Tony Thompson

    I think you made some very interesting points, especially about small, local museums. Some of the most culturally informative and respectful museums are those small, local museums, at least in my experience. I think museums can inform future historians in so many ways! Of course, directly in preserving cultural artifacts and, as Angela was saying before, indirectly in the decisions of WHAT is collected and preserved. Angela also brought up a great point on one of my posts in which I was talking about the importance of collecting culturally/historically “significant” objects: What about “insignificant” objects, or that is, everyday objects that we currently might see no intrinsic value in collecting/preserving? I had never really thought that deeply about that before, but it definitely made me re-think my ideas about WHAT objects are important for collections and expand my definition of “significant” objects. Great post this week, Dylan! Thanks!

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