Not nearly as much fun as steampunk robot wars, which may explain why I’ve been so, uh, steamed since the AAM Annual Meeting in April.
One of the sessions advertised itself as a discussion of how archives, libraries and museums could work together. Since I specialize in accessibility, interpretation, and contextualization of museum collection items, including archival and library materials, this is a topic which holds considerable interest for me. However, the session was not really about the sharing of information, but how library and archive materials could be used as museum objects in an exhibition setting. Christian Dupont moderated the session, and he invited the audience to pick up a copy of ACRL’s RBM journal, entitled Libraries, Archives, and Museums: Intersecting Missions, Converging Futures? (Volume 8, No. 1, Spring 2007). I’m awfully glad I did, although I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable by many, if not most, of the viewpoints expressed within the journal.
On the other hand, I also just read Collaborative Access to Virtual Museum Collection Information – Seeing Through the Walls, Bernadette G. Gallery, editor. This text provides a number of arguments and case studies of successful efforts at museums with mixed ALM collections. What is striking to me about these two different texts is just how optimistic the museum position is when compared with the library and archive position.
In the RBM journal, I took particular exception to two essays in particular. First, Dupont’s introduction, “Libraries, Archives, and Museums in the Twenty-First Century: Intersecting Missions, Converging Futures?” presented comments from scholarship attendees of RBMS’s conference of the same name. Although these attendees were from each of the cultural heritage disciplines, comments included in this introduction seemed to support some misconceptions: museums are only about exhibitions; libraries and archives place more of an emphasis on cataloguing than do museums; libraries, archives and museums cannot work together; and museum visitors expect less from museum collections and cataloguing practices than they do from libraries and archives.
One commenter, identified as a new library cataloguer, was quoted as stating,
[T]he conference settled definitely in my mind the questions of its title: intersecting missions? Yes. Converging futures? Probably not…. It’s clear to me now that the really significant common area of work among the three kinds of institutions is in exhibitions.
If this conference is representative of library and archive opinion, I find this quote in particular rather concerning. Is this the pervasive viewpoint of the archive and library professions? Another comment included in Dupont’s report seems to support this.
Identified as a comment from a library graduate who looked for work as an archivist before working in a museum:
It was interesting to hear the opinions of the librarians – who vastly outnumbered the other types of professionals – and how in general, they seemed to assume that library techniques were the way to go if other types or organizations were interested in any meaningful collaboration. … [T]he sentiment that libraries are correct, and museums might not have as much to offer, definitely seemed to be a pervasive one.
The second RBM essay I found problematic is from Gerald Beasley. Entitled, “Curatorial Crossover: Building Library, Archives, and Museum Collections,” Beasley argues that the push for sharing ALM materials is the product of rebranding and clever marketing. But Beasley’s primary fallacy is the common misconception that museums are only about programs and exhibitions. He fears that treating library and archive materials like museum materials, i.e. developing exhibitions around such materials, will destroy the highly-developed systems imposed on these materials by librarians and archivists.
Beasley cites Thomas Tanselle’s 1990 lecture, “Libraries, Museums, and Reading”*, echoing the fear that in an age of increased digitization, rare book holdings may simply become “museums of the book.” Tanselle argues that language is an intangible medium, but that is the medium of books. Therefore, books cannot be preserved and displayed as museum objects. Furthermore, because the language is intangible, and because museums are only interested in programs and exhibitions, the only interest a museum must have in a book would be the pretty illustrations. The information contained within the tome is secondary to the museum – a shocking state of affairs to the archivist and librarian.
Beasley acknowledges that he is wrong to identify museums as being nothing more than edutainment centers. However, he then goes on to marginalize those little-seen museum collections as being mere storehouses or, as he calls it, “the Department of Art Properties.” These Departments of Art Properties are dusty, forgotten, or used merely to brighten up a hallways. In a museum setting, these are often referred to as Study Collections, and are quite small and insignificant compared with the core materials contained within a museum. They are designed to be used in a hands-on setting, either for public groups or in offices.
What seems to be missing from the discussion, at least from the archive and library side, is the acknowledgment that, like archives and libraries, museums are research centers. Seeing Through the Walls, written from a museum perspective, understood inherently that museum collections in their entirety are just as historically valuable as their library and archive counterparts. Although museums are expected to, and do, produce great exhibitions, to assume that programs are their only function does them a grave disservice. Over the past hundred years, museums have been places of research, although that research has not been at the pace that libraries and archives have achieved. Increased public awareness and technological advances have allowed museums to offer increased research opportunities to a broad spectrum of shareholders. I think it’s fairly obvious that the information contained within each type of cultural heritage repository enhances and supports all types of research. An artifact in a museum likely has a document about it in an archive somewhere else, and there might be a book about it, too. Fearing each other helps no one. And despite claims to the contrary, if done with respect toward each profession’s standard practices, I cannot see how working together toward enhanced research opportunities causes harm.
The session and accompanying journal were eye openers, and I heartily continue to wish that the views represented there are only perspectives from a few members of the library and archive fields and not representative of the fields as a whole. We have so very much to offer one another.
*G. Thomas Tanselle, Libraries, Museums, and Reading, Sol. M. Malkin Lectures in Bibliography, No. 6, 1990 (New York: Colombia University School of Library Service, 1991)