vol. 21 no. 1, March, 2016

eRemembrance or eOblivion? International Conference on Society’s Memory Functions in the Digital World, University of Tampere, Finland, Tampere 23-24 November, 2015

Museum value or museality: only a theoretical concept or a concrete, practical tool?

Janne Vilkuna

Introduction. This paper is based on my keynote presentation at eRemembrance or eOblivion? – the International Conference on Society’s Memory Functions in the Digital World, Tampere, Finland, 23-24 November, 2015.
Issues. The selection process of cultural and natural heritage objects (artefacts, art works, natural history specimens, photos, etc.) to museum collections is based on a cultural interpretation and not on some absolute and intrinsic value of the object. The selective result of the interpretation can (as museologists do) be called museum value or museality. Can we proactively measure the museum value before accession or when the museum object is already part of the collections, for example, in the case of deaccessioning? Or is museality, due to the nature of cultural heritage in practice, a desired theoretical concept and goal, not often met in the everyday of practical museum work?
Conclusions. When the accession evaluation is documented with the accessed object, the process produces important knowledge about the values of the museum professionals and their society. In this way museum value or museality is both a theoretical concept and a concrete, practical tool.

Museum is a wide concept and this presentation deals mainly with cultural history museums and their practices.

Museums differ, at least in Finland, from the two other memory institutions - official archives and legal deposit libraries - in the sense that their collections do not accumulate by law or by some other regulation. Because not everything can be preserved and remembered, much has to be abandoned to forgetting and perishing. There are, however, two exceptions in museums which in principle accumulate automatically by law. First, the Antiquity Act (295/1963) protects earth and water found prehistoric artefacts or over 100 years old movable objects of unknown ownership. Second, the Environmental Protection Act (1096/1996) protects the recovered intact remains of animals. These finds should be brought to a cultural history museum or a natural history museum. In the case of protected animals, this is a principle which fortunately does not apply to all found dead preserved animals, such as all road casualties, being brought to natural history museums. Regarding all other accessions, someone at the museum has to decide which phenomenon and evidential objects are to be rejected by or accepted into the collection. Museality or museum value should be an integral concept in this process. In fact evaluation of the museality of an object is, or should be, present at both ends of the collection process that is at accession and at deaccession or disposal.

One difference is also the museum object itself. A digitized an excellent tool for accessibility, but it cannot replace physical presence of which gives opportunity hands-on research. instance this would be prehistoric wooden artefact can radiocarbon dated or DNA natural history sample analysed. In addition has so called energy digital file, image any kind copy does not have.

Museum collection accession was for a long time both object and donator centred. In other words, donators decided very much on how the collection would grow. Today this is from the museum’s point of view called passive accession. There was, of course, common social understanding of which objects were valuable enough for museum collections. Often the opinion was that the older an object was the more valuable it was. When museums began to be increasingly more maintained by professionals, it was realized that objects are not valuable as such, but their value is in the fact that objects are evidence of phenomena. The documented contexts of the object, therefore, became much more important than before. In this way collection accession became phenomenon-centred and the decision of accession shifted from donators to the museum professionals. Accession became active, and at the same time it was also realized that phenomenon documentation and object accession should also be done in the present. The phenomenon-centred museum policy made it possible for museum professionals to decide which phenomenon and objects were to be accessed and the quality of the documented data improved, it became simply more reliable when facts could be asked directly from the users of the objects for instance. In addition, many different ways of documentation could be applied, such as, interviews, photographs and videos. The last step so far has been society-centred accession, which evaluates the social use and benefits of the accession.

Active accession raised the question of what should be accessed. In the last few decades, museums have widely made and published collection policies and programmes, which outline the time, area and the cultural phenomenon that just this particular museum is responsible for to document and collect. The Museum Act (729/1992 and 877/2005) and Decree (1192/2005 and 456/2205) define the requirements for state subsidy. National and regional museums have to make an agreement with the National Board of Antiquities which demands, for example, a collection policy. But so far we do not have any research on how much these policies and programmes really affect accessions, which means that some evaluation had to be made before accession. In practice, however, this evaluation became actual first at the other end of the collection process, that is, deaccession or disposal.

During the 1990s, museum workers became aware of the collection resource limits or unsustainable collecting (object bulimia) which led to the situation where the collection was only partly maintained, such as cataloguing fell more and more behind and magazine space ran out. Before the 1990s deaccession or disposal was mainly considered to be a failure of collection work, which is why so little was published about it during that time. But after the 1990s deaccession became step by step an accepted operation in collection maintenance.

Deaccessions can be proactive, passive or active. Proactive deaccession means simply that those who are responsible for the collection do not accept the offered object. Passive deaccession means that the object simply either disappears or degrades for one reason or another. Active deaccession means that museum workers evaluate the object as not having enough importance to be kept in the collection and the reason why it is removed from the collection. When active deaccession was considered to be one solution for better collection maintenance, it was time to create practices for deaccession processes. One of the first steps was to make an evaluation system for the museum value of the objects. In 1993 I published a theoretical 3-level museum object evaluation system which was based on the amount of context the object had or had not (Vilkuna, 1993). The lowest level was deaccession. Tampere City Museum was the first in Finland to successfully realize an evaluation system. The museum curators, Ritva Palo-oja and Leena Willberg, utilised an evaluation system which they presented at a collection seminar of Finnish Museums Association, 1994 and it was published in English four years later (Palo-oja & Willberg, 1998).

It is clear that there have always been reasons and values for accessions both in the private and public collecting processes, but the concept of museality or museum value is quite new: the Czech museologist Zbyněk Stránský introduced it in 1965, but the Dutch museologist Peter van Mensch stated critically that Stránský “… With his changing concept of the cognitive intention of museology, his concept of museality changed from a value category to the specific value orientation itself.” (van Mensch, 1992, 04 Object of knowledge.)

When Stránský lectured on museology in Finland at the beginning of the 1990s, he defined the task of museology as leading us to understand which objects contain and which do not contain museality. At the same time it should also lead us to understand those laws which generate museality and how this process is used, or at least how it should be used (see also Stránský, 1995, 38-40).

In cultural historical museums, museum value correlates mostly strongly with the information value or contexts: in other words, it correlates with the object’s ability to convey knowledge of events in the past. It is important to note that the physical appearance or the economic value does not decide the museum value. Museum value is then not a monetary value; it is not the same as market value, or auction value, etc. Quite the contrary; a dirty, bloody and torn shirt, for example, can have immeasurable museum value if we know it to have belonged to some notable person or incident in the past. A case in point is the shirt worn by the Swedish King, Gustav II Adolph, when he was killed in action in 1632, which is now in the Livrustkammaren museum in Stockholm. Yet one of the most valuable museum objects in the Finnish Handicraft Museum in Jyväskylä, is a well-worn and almost totally mended traditional fisherman’s sweater from Hailuoto Island on the Gulf of Bothnia. In contrast to the King’s shirt, its owner was not well-known, nevertheless, the almost heart-breaking story behind the object is what makes its museum value so high. The sweater shows clearly how a museum object is always the sum of both tangible and intangible values and often the intangible is more valuable. It is important to note that all tangible or material objects actually always attain their cultural heritage value and position with intangible or immaterial values.

An object the history of which is unknown, has very seldom enough museum value to be accessed into the collection or to be kept there. When museality is evaluated, it is often also a question of both originality and authenticity. The concept of authentic is however problematic, since it is a relative concept. That is why one must always ask: authentic in relation to what? For example in the case of a coin: is it an authentic Roman coin or is it an authentic fake Roman coin?

Professor Susan Pearce at Museum Studies of Leicester University has done research on collecting. She has shown how each individual typically adopts one of the main collecting strategies: collecting souvenirs, fetishist collecting and systematic collecting (Pearce 1992, 69-88). Collecting souvenirs creates objects which Pearce portrayed as often having contexts which she described to be the tear of things which means that they contain strong memories, so strong that it can be very hard to convey these feelings to someone who does not have that memory. Pearce portrays the fetishist collector as being so demoniac in collecting that it ends normally only when the collector dies or goes bankrupt. Systematic collectors have in mind a system; for example, all Finnish postage stamps, and they then try to get every single specimen of that system. A public collector, such as a museum, does not differ very much from the individual collectors and their strategies, also individuals who collect for the museum, not the museum itself.

When museums, or in actual fact the museum workers, collect systematically, every specimen of the system has a museum value. I had hoped museums would not collect in a fetish manner, but I have seen symptoms of this neurosis. Collecting souvenirs of the museum’s community is common, where the community may be a city or an organization, although here we have the question of museum value. Which phenomenon and object has enough museum value to be documented and accessed into the museum collection of this community?

In practical work museum value is a relative concept which varies from worker to worker and from time to time. It can never be measured absolutely. But when active accessions have been made, it is clear that someone has evaluated the accession and found out that the object and its contexts have enough museum value. A documented explanation of the reasons that led to the accession is extremely important for the museum value of both the object and the whole collection.

The significance and the museum value of the object - be it either an artefact or a site - can be analysed with significance analyse methods. Finnish significance analyse method [fi. merkitysanalyysi] is a new and important method for Finnish museums for the evaluation of the value of objects and collections. The development of the method was funded by the Finnish National Board of Antiquities and was published in Finnish in January 2015 as an open access Internet publication by the Finnish Museums Association (Häyhä, Jantunen & Paaskoski, 2015). It is based mainly on three foreign models: the Australian Significance 2.0: a guide to assessing the significance of collections 2nd ed. from 2009 (1st edition was published already in 2001); the British Reviewing significance 2.0: a framework for assessing museum collections’ significance, management and use from 2012 (which is based on an earlier system from 2010) and the Dutch Assessing Museum Collections - Collection valuation in six steps from 2014.

The concept of museality is for museologists a very interesting research topic simply because it has a relative and not an absolute cultural value. This constantly changing value is interesting because museum collections are in two ways excellent mirrors of the values and power relations of the society. The objects and their contexts reveal certain common values and power structures of society and – this is important – just as important an indicator is the knowledge of which phenomena and their objects were not accessed into the collection.

Whatever method we use, either alone or in a group, as a work tool when we decide upon a collection accession, or deaccession, the decision is always subjective. The number of people dealing with the decision does not make it in any way more objective. Earlier it was common that the reasoning behind the accession decision was not documented because we suffered from unsustainable collecting which resulted too often in our placing quantity over quality. This situation is fortunately slowly changing, albeit slowly.

Museum value, or museality, is only a theoretical and not a concrete concept in the sense that it is always a relative and not an absolute value, nor is it countable or measurable. But it still exists without doubt in everyday museum collection and documentation work. When the accession evaluation is documented with the accessed object, the process produces important knowledge about the values of the museum professionals and their society. In this way museum value or museality is both a theoretical concept and a concrete, practical tool. Museum work has developed from object-centred and phenomenon-centred to society-centred. In addition, tangible and intangible are understood to be only the separate sides of the same coin. In this situation museologists and maybe also others dealing with the memory functions of society, should begin to use, beside museum value, also the concept (cultural) heritage value.

About the author

Janne Vilkuna (PhD, 1992, University of Jyväskylä, Finland) is currently the Professor of Museology at the Department of Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyväskylä, FIN-40014, Finland. His email address is janne.vilkuna@jyu.fi.

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How to cite this paper

Vilkuna, J. (2016). Museum value or museality: only a theoretical concept or a concrete, practical tool?. Information Research, 21(1), paper memo1. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/21-1/memo/memo1.html (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6ioscJVI0)

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