Objects without stories


(Note: This post is quite Calgary-based, and not particularly well-researched, so take with large amounts of sodium)

I’ve always been one of those people who needs to read every placard in a museum. Looking at objects is one thing, but without context to understand what makes them unique or interesting, its just so much stuff. Once the museum adds even just a tiny bit of narrative, I can get lost in the little details, trying to figure out how they work into a broader whole. To me, it’s the value of the experience.

This is also why I tend to prefer separating from groups when I go through a museum. I go slooow, and I imagine that gets pretty irritating. You probably don’t want to be my museum buddy.

The Glenbow put out an announcement today, which, among other things, includes the fact that I should just be calling it “Glenbow.” Fair enough. Another thing Glenbow decided is that it’s going to focus on art, the logic being that right now it’s spreading itself too thin and ending up as “a disorienting mishmash of experiences” as the Globe and Mail puts it.

Again, fair enough. I do think Calgary needs and deserves a history museum, but the Glenbow doesn’t have to be it, and lord knows I’ve learned a thing or two in the last year about the importance of distilling your organization’s mission. Good on them for picking a focus, and I hope it helps get things back on track.

It also seems like an excellent decision to spotlight Glenbow’s archives (it feels weird without the “The”, doesn’t it?); with over 33,000 items, there are bound to be some absolute gems in there. Even just thinking back to the archival items that have supplemented some of the travelling exhibits in the last few years, it seems like the collection could sustain interest and keep visitors returning for a good long while.

There’s a section of the Globe and Mail article that strikes me as totally wrong, though. And it’s this:

In the new Glenbow, the fourth floor will become an ever-evolving gallery that will change every three months or so, housing items from the permanent collection – albeit presented in extremely bare-bones fashion. “There would be no curation, no label copy, no fancy mounts or anything. We’d just say: Here’s all our cameras, or here’s all our jewellery, or here’s all our quilts. So the visitor would … have to do the work. They’re going to have to make the stories around what they see,” she says.

I’m sure there are reasons–funding and staffing spring to mind immediately–but relying on the visitors to make the stories strikes me as entirely misguided. Making up stories isn’t that hard. I can guess at certain connections between all the cameras, or notice a few differences between quilts and come up with a halfway-plausible explanation for that. But it’ll be uninformed guesswork and speculation. One of the things that separates a museum from a curio cabinet is that I can look at the contents and learn something about it, through the provenance, the way it’s presented and, most importantly, from the time that experts have put into understanding the story behind it.

Because when you get down to it, objects aren’t history. They’re just things. It takes skill and knowledge to turn a collection of jewelry or cameras or quilts or rocks or leather jackets into a meaningful look at the progression of human culture. Again, I love that Glenbow is trying to get more use out of its collection, but if it’s entirely at the expense of curation, knowledge-sharing and story-telling, how useful is that, really? Hopefully, there’s more to the plans than what that one quote implies.

One Response to “Objects without stories”
  1. Francesca says:

    Maybe there is just not enough history in Calgary to have a history museum. I had something of mine hanging in the Glenbow 9 years ago. It was a poem, not a painting.

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