Re-imagining The Unloved – An Argument for Experimental Collections

Experiment A few months ago, I sweet-talked (in very poor German) my way into a behind-the-scenes tour of a local museum. As a staff member was showing me around, he mentioned that the collection space was roughly divided into two zones. Zone 1 housed the “valuable” items – the pieces that get put on display and used by researchers. Zone 2 housed everything else. When I asked my guide how often objects were pulled from Zone 2, he couldn’t remember that they’d been used for anything.  To that museum, those were the unimportant pieces, the unnecessary artifacts. They were, as my former colleague and friend Maria Mortati once put it in an email to me, the “unloved.”

I thought about the objects in Zone 2 last night when I read Linda Norris’s recent post, “How to Fix That General Backlog.” Encountering a similar collections situation (and haven’t we all, multiple times?), Linda reissued the challenge for museums to free themselves from the burden of unnecessary collections set forth by Rainey Tisdale and Trevor Jone’s Active Collections project. Read the manifesto here.

Honestly, I think the museum I visited could throw away their unloved objects, and they wouldn’t be missed. But an opportunity might be. Because there can be potential in the unloved, and it would be a shame not to look for it.

My first experiences exploring alternative uses for unloved objects came when I was consulting with a small community museum. The museum wanted to start experimenting – everything from incorporating design thinking into their planning process to eliminating exhibit cases to installing objects outside. They had big goals, but a small budget, and the primary challenge was figuring out how to cheaply and quickly test different ideas without risking the collections. Enter the unloved objects. In order to prototype displaying objects in unconventional ways, we began by playing with items from the educational collection and items that were scheduled for deaccession. Where before, staff had been constrained by the fears of “what if’s,” they weren’t scared to hurt, damage, or even destroy these objects. So they took more – and bolder – chances. They tested and tweaked and rejiggered their ideas, and came out with a better understanding of what worked and what didn’t.

I know so many colleagues, and hear about so many museums, who want to try new, different, and even radical things, but budget constraints and collection concerns often hold them back. Unloved objects are a possible solution. Sacred cows hinder creativity. There are too many rules, restrictions, and reservations. But the pieces in those old cabinets and on those back shelves? The objects that don’t get used? Use them.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History did just that when they incorporated unloved objects in their 2013 Hack the Museum Camp, but the idea of using the less important pieces within a collection to prototype, experiment, and generally think outside the box is something any museum can do.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all unwanted or unnecessary objects within a collection should immediately go into the experimental pile. I think the arguments behind the Active Collections project are absolutely valid and worthy. Museums should determine which objects in their collections clearly support their mission, and get rid of those that don’t. But part of that process should be determining to what extent experimentation and creativity are a part of the museum’s mission, and how objects could be re-purposed to support that.

So take a look at your mission, your goals, and then your collections. What are the objects worth keeping, what are the objects worth discarding, and what are the objects worth getting messy with as you try something different?

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