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Wisdom from a Museum Curator

Dr. Nicole Suarez, author of The Collaborative Curator website, recently posted an excellent piece about the evolution and use of historic materials in “Should Artifacts Maintain Their Original Functions?”  I had the chance to meet Nicole at an Army working group event, and she is a museum curator at the U.S. Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum in North Carolina. It’s such a good piece, I’ve copied it here in its entirety:

Although it sounds absurd, many curators are faced with the issue of how to handle patrons and organizations who want to use museum artifacts in ceremonies and special events. What they do not understand is that once the object enters the museum’s collection, it no longer functions in the same way. An artifact’s new role is to benefit society by promoting education and aestheic enjoyment. Museum professionals work together to achieve this fuction by ensuring that artifacts are properly preserved and secured.

Recently, my institution was asked to facilitate a ceremony for a specific military association. They wanted us to take an artifact and display it in an outdoor event– with no case, no security, etc! They wanted the object to function just as it did 70 years ago. Of course, it would seem easy to just flat out say “No!”, however, that is difficult when the association is a prominent financial supporter of the museum. In this case, we educated the association about the problems associated with using the object in that fashion. In the end, no one was offended and they were better informed about the role of museums in society.

This is a common issue among many of my colleagues. One of these individuals told me how he had to stop loaning out a beautiful 18th century gown. Descendants of the original owner would borrow the gown from the museum to wear during their weddings. These women would even have the gown altered to fit them. Another shared how he had a flag that sat on the funerary casket of a U.S. military hero. Relatives wanted to use the flag at their own funerals even after it entered the museum. 

Depending on how powerful certain individuals or organizations are, museum staff may feel pressured to give in to certain demands from their supporters. It’s important to have a policy in place to give to patrons so that they understand the function of museum artifacts. This should mainly focus on the issues associated with preservation and security. When presented with this difficult situation, think outside the box, sometimes a compromise can be made where both parties are happy. As long as artifacts are only handled by museum professinals and are in a secure, stable environment, they can still be enjoyed by viewers.

This is not as much of an issue in history offices, though we are often asked to get artifacts from museums for “non-standard” displays.  One of the reasons why artifacts in museums look so good is because they are protected, kept in controlled environments, and not brought out and strapped to the front of a Jeep to ride in a parade. 

One aspect that is similar, though, is that once something is accessioned by a museum or an archive, it evolves.  It is frozen in time as it’s former utility, while it is simultaneously a dynamic part of a history or museum collection.

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