Forgetting about, letting go, and disposing of ‘stuff’: connections between the Unloved Collections and Curating Profusion projects Jennie Morgan, University of York

For our upcoming conference we have asked for contributions of blog posts in lieu of posters. Our first post comes from Jennie Morgan at the University of York.

Disposing of objects may be considered the ultimate intervention for dealing with ‘unloved’ (and typically unseen) museum collections. As museums grapple with the challenge of balancing ongoing material accumulation with restricted space and funds, difficult decisions are necessarily being made about what to keep for the future, and why. Holding onto certain things, while getting rid of others, may sit uneasily with the traditional logic and public perception of museums – institutions that are usually associated with ideals of guardianship, collective memory-making, and retaining for perpetuity. Yet, the ability to responsibly ‘let go’ has become a key topic of discussion (at least within the UK, see for example this report by the National Museum Director’s Conference). Critical reflection on disposals encourages new understandings about what museums are for – as flagged earlier this year at the Curating the Nation debate hosted by the British Museum where it was proposed (eloquently by Nick Merriman) that museums must evolve from being institutions that ‘represent’ to those that ‘interpret’. In this argument, selectiveness, partiality, and forgetting are considered key to actively managing collections into the future.

Bookshelf  ©Jennie Morgan
Bookshelf ©Jennie Morgan

How museums deal with the mass accumulation of ‘stuff’ that so frequently characterises storerooms is, partly, the focus of a new research project that I am working on with Sharon Macdonald at the University of York. Called Curating Profusion: Caring for the Future and Assembling Value in Homes and Smaller Museums, it is funded (like the Unloved Collections project) through the AHRC Care for the Future theme and is part of a bigger research programme on how futures for heritage are made. Specifically, we are exploring how the future archive is assembled from the profusion of consumer goods characteristic of homes and museums: or what others might describe to be a situation of ‘overflow’ or ‘stuffocation’. We are looking at what kinds of things are (and are not) kept for future posterity, and the values, assumptions, and emotions guiding these selections.

Like the Unloved Collections theme, our project is concerned with sustainable collecting, stewardship, and the emotional response of people to things – issues core to contemporary museum practice. By further thinking through resonances between these projects, I am reminded that while some things are actively pushed into the future through the choices people make, others persist precisely by virtue of being ‘unloved’ – or otherwise under-appreciated, forgotten about, or what Sophie Woodward describes as being ‘dormant’. Indeed, it will be interesting as our fieldwork progresses (we are just starting to research in households and museums) to learn more about whether and in what circumstances being ‘unloved’ becomes a justification for retaining some things and not others. Our research will likely demonstrate the ways that qualities of things themselves – including material, spatial, sensory, aesthetic, and temporal features, as well as peoples’ affective and visceral responses to these – play into the crafting of possible retention and stewardship strategies across these settings.

Wedding Keepsakes  ©Jennie Morgan
Wedding Keepsakes ©Jennie Morgan

While museums and households will likely share some strategies for coping with profusion, one of our key goals is to consider points of difference that may enable practical knowledge to be produced and possible routes for intervention identified. What, for instance, might museums learn from how householders ‘curate’ their homes, including their approaches for discarding, reusing, or recycling ‘excess’ stuff? What kinds of emotional, sensory, and experiential responses to things guide householders’ future-keeping choices, and how might museums capture and retain these less tangible and more personal attachments as things move from domestic to institutional settings? Indeed, what would the implications of doing so be for curatorial practice, and how might these ‘other’ ways of valuing things be harnessed to reinvigorate existing ‘unloved’ collections? We do not (yet!) have responses to such questions, and partly my participation in the Unloved Collections conference (and this Blog) is driven by a curiosity to see how these may play out in slightly different ways through research into stored and overlooked collections, and especially the role of emotion in understanding these. Yet, faced with the challenge of coping with material (and increasingly digital) proliferation it would seem that developing a sustainable archive demands from museums – and those of us who research in and on them – to consider these kinds of question seriously. Not least, I would argue, to minimise the future proliferation of ‘unloved’ (or under-valued, appreciated, and used) collections.

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