After watching the videos and reading the materials this week, I got thinking about why museums collect the things that they do. Obviously, museums collect things that further their particular specialty – it wouldn’t make sense for a natural history museum to collect fine art. However, it seems that museums also collect things that further the educational value of their patrons, and collect things that they think may be important in the future. For example, the “Lost Coffee Bean” video made it clear that scientists are paying attention to things I never even thought about! When Dr. Aaron Davis mentioned that climate change, harvesting, pests, and diseases were threatening the world’s arabica bean supply, I suddenly realized that scientists specialize in all sorts of specialties that never occurred to me (of course, I had known this, but it just hit home with the video for some reason), and that we only have this lost coffee plant in a museum collection because someone out there cared enough to pay attention to different species of coffee.

So there are scientists, anthropologists, and historians out there in the field (or library) making sure that samples of their specialties are saved for posterity and research. But where are those items supposed to be stored? In researching how our very own UA Museum of the North was founded, I learned that the museum’s collection was literally started by a scientist (Otto Geist) who was sent on a mission to collect ethnographic and archaeological artifacts at the direction of the University of Alaska President Charles Bunnell. This was in 1926, and the museum officially opened in 1929. It’s been collecting items related to Alaska ever since. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts was originally founded as an art gallery in 1914! When a local family gifted a large private collection to the gallery in the 1940s, the gallery renovated its building and changed their focus from selling art to collecting and displaying it. However, not all of this art is related to Utah or even the American West. There are international art pieces – even a small Egyptian exhibit. Both museums have different goals in mind – one relates directly to the local state in some way, and one makes sure to incorporate an international feel. Obviously, both are educational. Both are important because they are preserving not only the past, but the present, even if they do take a slightly different approach to it. And both places collect for the research value involved with their pieces.

Question: Have you ever wondered about an object in a museum and how it got there? What was it, and did you ever find the answer?

4 Thoughts to “Why Museums Collect”

  1. Avatar photoSavanna VonScheele

    I relate with you on how scientists have such a vast field of studying items, like coffee beans I did not think that would be important to document. as it correlated on how the world is altered by like you mentioned climate change and pest + diseases. To answer your question, I have wondered, like some traditional objects at NMAI, like dance fans, a stand for a oil lamp, and some other objects, but did not get an answer due to not asking anyone on how they came into acquisition.

  2. Maxine Laberge

    I have to be honest…I don’t think I ever critically questioned how certain objects get into museums until this class! I always assumed that everybody involved with museums must have the best intentions.

    A few weeks ago I was able to visit the Anchorage Museum and I felt way more tuned into how these things ended up at this museum. There is a vast exhibit on Alaskan history that I couldn’t help but wonder, how did these objects end up here? Other than the obvious fact that the objects were made in Alaska and we are physically in Alaska, there is no other explanation about how they became part of an exhibit.

    I would like to see a change in the way museums inform visitors about the origins of an object. I think it’s important to educate the public on how these items of interest became part of the collection. Especially cultural items like the ones displayed at the Anchorage Museum. Who donated these? Who originally owned them? Who made them? This could all be part of the plaque placed next to the exhibit in the same way that works of art are usually followed by an Artist statement, their name, where it was made, and what the materials are.

  3. Arianna Wyanski

    I would have to agree with Maxine about not really thinking about how objects got into museums. I too had the naïve mindset that everything there was so with best intentions in mind. But now that I had to think about, most of MIM has musical instruments from literally all over the world, and now I wonder how they got there, and I can’t remember if it was ever stated that they were donated.

  4. Kai Doak

    When my wife and I were traveling in OKC, we went to the Cowboy Museum down there. Whilst wandering, I noticed they had 2 walls full of different kinds of barbed wire in drawers. It was a little intimidating at first, and when we asked the guide about it, they said that it was showing the advancements throughout the years, but they weren’t sure how it came to be or why. To this day I am still curious how they received over 400 kinds of barbed wire as well as why.

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