Thursday, May 19, 2011

Disposing Museum Material: Information Lost or New Perspectives Gained?

     Modern museum practices resemble the symptoms of an obsessive compulsive disorder known as hoarding.  Like hoarders, museum institutions value accession after accession of material for its collections.  Both museums and hoarders find the processes of deaccession and disposal to be extremely difficult.  It seems that somewhere inherent in our social and cultural structures resides the passion for collecting objects as well as a resistance to ridding ourselves of them.  Are museums destined to be swallowed up by their collections?
     In the recent decades a solution has risen in the form of museum disposal procedures which allow for the removal of certain objects.  However, many ethical, legal, and moral questions emerge in connection with these procedures.  This essay will address the advantages and disadvantages of museum disposals; most notably the affect of disposals on the discipline of art history.  Mid-eighteenth-century scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann encouraged the physical examination of objects, a process which he deemed to be essential for a proper critical analysis. Is this still necessary today?  I will argue that current technologies for archiving materials, such as digital 3D scanning, have changed the playing field and have weakened the sustainability and necessity of the physical object.  In examining this issue, I will address the educational drawbacks of such an approach as well as the limitations of revering simulacra over originals. 
     Can we, should we, break with our compulsion and desire to tangibly recall the past? Or should museums continue with current policies, subsequently perpetuating traditional art historical methods of analysis?

**This essay "The Advantages and Disadvantages of Museum Disposals" included in a book of collected essays entitled Museums and the Disposals Debate is to be published by MuseumsEtc in Autumn 2011.  Visit here to purchase a copy:

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