Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Once More on Museum Deaccession

David Knell has been quiet recently, but has a new post on his blog ('Why do museums hoard?', Monday, 1 December 2014).
A resentment of museums apparently stockpiling thousands of "surplus" artefacts rather than selling them and allowing private collectors to buy them is a recurring theme in the world of collectors. It seems a valid concern at first glance but much of it is rooted in what I term OCM (object-centric myopia), thinking of artefacts merely as art objects rather than as part of a far wider picture, as research tools in understanding our past.
Knell goes on to explain what the reserve collections of museums are for. He also criticises the collectors' notion of a "duplicate". This he characterises pretty appositely as:
 just 'baseball card mentality', entrenched in thinking of artefacts as mere art objects to fill gaps in collections. There is no such thing as a "duplicate" in the conduct of archaeological inquiry. In the world of academic research, the very fact that many of the artefacts are seemingly alike can be invaluable in studies such as cultural development investigation or quantitative analysis.
Refreshingly (because most other explications of the theme tend to use pottery vessels as the exemplar) he refers to a study of Firmalampen (a type of Roman lamp) a few years ago -
based on an examination of hundreds of superficially similar lamps (both complete and bare fragments) kept in the storage of museums throughout parts of Western Europe. Verified knowledge of their findspot played a vital role and, since chemical analysis was involved, mere photographs were not sufficient. Of course, such a study would not have been possible if the lamps had been dispersed to the market decades ago.
Knell points out that when other disciplines store research collections nobody would venture to suggest that the only motivation for this is "a childish resentment of non-professionals or an addiction for compulsive hoarding". In any case, "it's worth bearing in mind that there are literally millions of artefacts already on the market or in private collections".

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