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A bit of museum silliness with thanks to Dear Reader Kenny.

As mentioned before, my dear Museum of National Antiquities has not escaped the weird influence of post-modernist museology. In its excellent on-line catalogue, which I cannot recommend highly enough, we find object number -100:559: an ice cream stick, dating from the ’00s. Its context is unusually unclear in the on-line info, but it appears to have been donated during an outreach project where kids were invited to give the museum stuff and speculate about how people in the future will one day interpret it.

I don’t think curating, photographing and cataloguing things like this is a good use of public funds.

(And Fredrik, please don’t bother writing an angry comment this time. Maybe you should start a blog instead.)

Update 17 March: And here’s a bus time table, a plastic water bottle, a dud lottery ticket, a drinking straw and a crumpled shop receipt. There are at least 266 of these objects in the database, photos nos 570400-570665.

Comments

  1. #1 Tor
    March 16, 2009

    Building an inventory of contemporary every-day stuff for the benefit of historically interested future generations doesn’t necessarily strike me as a bad idea. Put putting the stuff on display before it becomes historical seems silly.

  2. #2 Janne
    March 16, 2009

    It doesn’t belong in a museum of history of course; it’s not yet historical.

    That said, the idea of curating modern objects is not completely off the wall. We already do so for buildings and large installations (“kulturminnesmärkning”), either because they’re highly unique or common but very representative. Why would we not do so with smaller objects as well, not just schools, gasoline stations and barns?

  3. #3 csrster
    March 16, 2009

    Ridiculous. It should have been buried in peat for at least a thousand years, dug up, subjected to every physical and chemical test ever devised by the ingenuity of mankind and then stuck in a glass cabinet with a label reading “Flat wooden utensil. Purpose unknown. Poss. ritual significance.”.

  4. #4 Martin R
    March 16, 2009

    The Museum of Nordic Culture has been doing that for over a century. It’s a ten-minute walk from the Museum of National Antiquities. But they buy entire kitchens, entire teen bedrooms, and document them meticulously.

  5. #5 Per Edman
    March 16, 2009

    The problem isn’t that we’re doing this today. The problem is the sumerians didn’t do it in their time.

  6. #6 Tobias
    March 16, 2009

    That’s nothing. Go to:

    http://mis.historiska.se/mis/sok/sok.asp?qtype=bild&sm=0_6

    Enter (without the quotes)”nyckelring” (=key chain) in the field with the heading “Sakord:”

    You will not only be served with some more modern rubbish but also some nifty product placement.

    Museum of National Antiquities: You cant beat the feeling!

  7. #7 Martijn
    March 16, 2009

    But they buy entire kitchens, entire teen bedrooms

    Ikea, I presume? ;)

  8. #8 chris y
    March 16, 2009

    an ice cream stick, dating from the ’00s.

    Trouble is, I’m still stuck in the head space where I read this and think, “Wow, an ice cream stick from before World War I – way cool!”.

    But csrster gets it exactly right.

  9. #9 Aardwolf
    March 16, 2009

    Heaven forbid we spend ALL THAT money to take a digital picture of a popsicle stick!

    I could understand the confusion and complaint had you not discovered that “it appears to have been donated during an outreach project where kids were invited to give the museum stuff and speculate about how people in the future will one day interpret it.”
    It is getting the youth interested and involved in the museum and in history. That effort seems like a GREAT use of funds.

  10. #10 Martin R
    March 16, 2009

    You think the seven-year-olds in question became more interested because the museum people kept and catalogued the stuff after they went home?

  11. #11 Janne
    March 16, 2009

    “You think the seven-year-olds in question became more interested because the museum people kept and catalogued the stuff after they went home?”

    I think the kids would have felt vaguely cheated and betrayed had they discovered that the museum threw it away. The event may or may not have increased their interest, but just throwing this away would have been certain to lessen it.

    Maybe the problem is the idea of outreach programs and popularization. Reestablish museums as primarily academic research resources and stop worrying about whether the public finds it interesting or not.

  12. #12 Aardwolf
    March 16, 2009

    “You think the seven-year-olds in question became more interested because the museum people kept and catalogued the stuff after they went home?”

    Yes, assuming that the catalog is publicly viewable (and not just a database for museum purposes only) I do think think that this may result in greater interest. The child can view the catalog at home and show their parents, or have it shared in a classroom setting.

    Actually seeing their contribution incorporated into the catalog would be a much stronger memory than just going through the motions to complete an assignment. Why not oblige the students?

    I fail to see how this has any tangible negative impact on the museum- have they received criticisms, other than your own? However, I can imagine the many benefits of involving the youth and the future of the museum.

  13. #13 Mattias
    March 17, 2009

    This raises complicated issues of canonisation and future historiography of course: should we collect ‘Lakritspuck’ and ‘X-17′ to a greater extent than the more internationally generic ‘Magnum’?

    / Mattias

  14. #14 Fredrik S
    March 17, 2009

    :-)

    “You think the seven-year-olds in question became more interested because the museum people kept and catalogued the stuff after they went home?”

    That´s exactly what happened – no other project has ever drawn so much attention and interest to our public database. The objects in question were left to the museum in the context of a specific project on condition we took them. The project has served as a basis for several scientific papers (see for example Public Archaeology no 4 2008). /Fredrik

  15. #15 Martin R
    March 17, 2009

    Yeah, you’d probably get some major traffic to the site if you put up some new Britney Spears videos too. Whatever draws the punters, right?

  16. #16 Martin R
    March 17, 2009

    As for those “scientific” papers, they are part of a meta-discussion, and do not treat any of the subjects to which the Museum of National Antiquities is devoted.

  17. #17 Fredrik S
    March 17, 2009

    This blog represents a pseudo-discussion, strangely distanced from Swedish archaeology and what happens on the museum field…

  18. #18 DianaGainer
    March 17, 2009

    What they really needed next to that popsickle stick was the little house built of popsickle sticks, the jewelry box built for the lad’s mama built out of popsickle sticks, the tackle box built for the little girl’s papa built out of popsickle sticks, the model of the Alamo (that shrine to Texas history, for you culturally deprived folks out there in cyberland) built out of popsickle sticks, and that little model of San Juan Capistrano (the most important of the missions, or so we learned in California history, for you other culturally deprived folk out there in the rest of cyberland). Then that little popsickle stick wouldn’t have seemed nearly so forlorn. It only needed a can of gold spray paint to keep it company anyhow.

  19. #19 Martin R
    March 18, 2009

    Fredrik Svanberg, please let me remind you: taking part in this discussion, you are a civil servant responding to criticism from an interested member of the public. And you are going on what amounts to permanent public record, available to anyone who googles your name.

    If I weren’t pretty convinced that you actually are you, I’d wonder if the person who wrote that comment was an impostor out to discredit Dr. Svanberg.

    I don’t much like the non-archaeological turn your recent work at the Museum of National Antiquities has taken. And to that dislike, I now have to add that you are in sore need of media training. Talk to your boss about it. I’m sure he’d be more than happy to front the bill. Because you’re not representing your employer very skillfully.

  20. #20 ABCnotA
    March 19, 2009

    This is even more of a “pseudo-discussion” considering that entire comments and opinions are selectively deleted.

  21. #21 Fredrik S
    March 20, 2009

    Well, dr Martin Rundkvist, did I hit a sore spot? I recommend you to think twice before threatening or insulting your commentators. It doesn´t look good in the permanent public record.

  22. #22 Howard Williams
    March 21, 2009

    I love a healthy debate. I don’t know much about this particular museum project, but here are some general points for what their worth.

    About modern artefacts in museums. This practice is widespread. Modern artefacts are sold in museums, they are displayed as art in museums. Recently, I saw the use of modern artefacts on display next to Viking-period artefacts in Visby museum, I suppose to make points about utility and functionality as well as the contrasts in technology between past and present. In Manchester museum, the Egyptian gallery juxtaposes the ancient Egyptian funerary remains of mummies and sarcophagi with coffins and the like commissioned from contemporary artists. Their current display of Lindow Man (the Iron Age body body) has a section with late 20th century artefacts connecting the bog body’s discovery to the experience of a woman who grew up in the area and remembered when the bog body was discovered in rural Cheshire. In the National Museum in Edinburgh, you can find Andy Goldsworthy art amidst prehistoric artefacts.

    My point is that this seems a common theme and modern artefacts are used in a variety of ways in museums to comment upon the past. This is not something new and it often adds rather than detracts from the museum experience in many ways.

    Personally, to my taste, the Visby example I found honest and meaningful, the Manchester examples were contrived and poorly explained, the Edinburgh example infuriatingly opaque to the visitor and slightly snobish. Comparisons of commonplace artefacts in the past and present seems less problematic to me than some contrived attempts at symbiosis between archaeology and contemporary art, but that is just me. But I say this as another human carapace of Anthony Gormley is buried upside down with the feet still showing at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge (so a friend’s facebook status tells me).

    So whatever your thoughts on the effectiveness of individual displays, I would say they all try to use modern artefacts to enrich and communicate about the past and its interpretation in the present. Surely this is what history is all about.

    Then there is the point about communicating the museum process to children. What better way to do it? What better way to engage and enhance a young child’s appreciation of what would happen if they found something old.

    Martin: sorry mate, but I have to come down firmly on Fredrik’s side on this point, even if, in isolation, I can’t see the point of recording a modern lolly-stick. Are you sure you aren’t acting like a British tabloid and taking an example out of context?

    Fredrik: I think Martin may have a point that many people are missing YOUR point and getting very irrate about it. Are you sure that the relevance of these activities are fully outlined by the museum?

    Finally, as someone recently published in ‘Public Archaeology’ but without a subscription, may I grovel an offprint off Fredrik please? I will send you mine?! I think that it is great that Museum archaeology is not only doing interesting and new things but it is also publishing discussions of it in a international forum of relevance beyond museum archaeology itself.

    Anyway, back to the mudslinging. Martin; loose the beard man. It may look nice but you risk your wife and children leaving you for a smooth and beardless ice cream stick!

  23. #23 Martin R
    March 22, 2009

    Howard, your examples all concern exhibited modern objects and ones offered for sale in the museum shop. Thus they’re beside the point here. The museum has collected, stored, photographed and catalogued at least 266 small pieces of modern trash. The one I show a picture of is not cherry-picked for being unusually silly. Meanwhile, the temporary stores are full of uncatalogued archaeological finds. That’s where I think that money should have gone.

    Catching the interest of children is of course vital to museums. But that does not mean that any method that gathers them in is acceptable. If I’m the head of a cucumber cannery museum, then my outreach projects must be based in cucumber related materials. I can’t hitch a ride on the popularity of tinned ravioli when there’s already a separate ravioli museum down the road.

  24. #24 Howard Williams
    March 22, 2009

    So 266 pieces of modern trash must surely be linked to a single exercise and a single project in which the PROCESS of collecting, storing, cataloguing etc is being highlighted to a young audience. I can’t imagine this is part of an ongoing and ever-lasting collections strategy. I presume it would also be linked to particular project funds that are not applicable to cataloguing archaeological finds?

    Sure, museums have remits. But if cucumbers are their thing, they might want to try pickled gherkins as well and other vegetables to show how cucumbers fit into broader food-groups and meals. They should even dabble in tinned ravioli if it gets the kids through the door and appreciate better the fine cucumbers on display. They might even sell them in combination in the museum shop – an appetising meal for any IKEA restaurant I am sure! Finally, it will also be a temptation on conservation grounds; think of the costs of preserving fresh cucumber in comparison to tinned goods!

    What are we talking about again?

  25. #25 Martin R
    March 22, 2009

    Yeah, the modern trash catalogue is one part of the current process at the Museum of National Antiquities. And above I have made known my opinion that the process is not being directed in an optimal manner when it has major glitches like this. The people allocating money to the museum should keep a closer eye on what happens to the funds.

  26. #26 Fredrik Svanberg
    March 24, 2009

    I´m sorry Martin, but I have to say that your buddy Howard is making quite a few accurate points here.

    “So 266 pieces of modern trash must surely be linked to a single exercise and a single project in which the PROCESS of collecting, storing, cataloguing etc is being highlighted to a young audience. I can’t imagine this is part of an ongoing and ever-lasting collections strategy. I presume it would also be linked to particular project funds that are not applicable to cataloguing archaeological finds?”

    That is exactly the case and it´s interesting to see how Howard could figure that out with no background info at all!

    What strikes me the most, Martin, is precisely your way of taking an example out of context without bothering even the least to check out WHY there is an ice cream stick in the database. It was indeed registered in an outreach project and the strange nr is due to the fact that it hasn´t been accessioned, just registered in the database. The project in question, “Memories for the future”, was a small exhibition and all over media in the summer of 2007 – very few people who met it missed the point I think. And you can read about it in a refereed paper in Public Archaeology (bibliometrically ranked the same within archaeology as Fornvännen, by the way, which is strange since FV isn´t refereed). The only thing I regret is that there is apparently too little info about context in the database (on the other hand, I didn´t really expect anyone to find it there after the project had finished – you have to look quite hard…).

    I don´t think you actually have any knowledge at all about “current process” at the Museum of National Antiquities Martin. You are completely out of your element here and I fail to see what competence you have to be the judge of museum business at all. And don´t say that you´re just any member of the public having an opinion – that´s not really to the point. Among other things I am quite pleased that research at the museum has picked up so well recently. As of present, we have a number of large-scale projects going, employing quite a few phd:s (though not an army yet) and financed by the National Heritage Board and the The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, among others. Will you actually discredit their judgement as well? Did we fool them into sponsoring our projects? Or may the truth be that your opinions on the museum ARE just a bit strange (flawed by experiences 6 or 7 years ago rather than tied to a current situation maybe)?

    Since this is not exactly offical communication with my institution, furthermore, I may not be commenting in my role as civil servant. Please feel free to enjoy it as feedback from the professional archaeological community.

    I don´t have offprints, Howard, but I´ll e-mail you a pdf. Thanks for the boatgrave-paper, it was really nice. I actually told Martin so, hope he passed it on. /Fredrik

  27. #27 Henrik
    March 30, 2009

    This is so much fun! Don’t stop now!

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