Museum displays have the role of collecting objects and materials that have cultural and historical relevance. These collections are then preserved and researched so that they can be presented to the public as an educational and amusement resource.
UNESCO’s 2015 ‘Recommendation concerning the protection and promotion of museums and collections, their diversity and their role in society’ lists four key functions of museums: preservation, education, communication, and research. These functions lay the basis for the methods that are used by museums to collect information and, therefore, keep themselves pertinent and up to date with the flow of new information.
In the context of this article, asking how museums keep themselves informed implies probing into how they collect new objects and material and how they acquire apposite information on old and new objects. The specific ways museums do this include collecting, purchasing, donating and researching.
Collecting implies active searching and gathering of the cultural and historic objects and materials that make the museum’s heritage. This is guided by the specific concept of the museum. Based on the concept, museum management seeks out objects and materials that fit its collection criteria. For example, a museum specializing in war weapons may decide to collect weapons that fit the criteria defined by recognizable condition, sourced within a particular content and dating back to a particular historical era. On these qualities, new war weapons will be purchased or donated.
Assume that a museum has a collection of drawing associated with the traditional art of a community. If at some point the management learns that a key element in the series is missing and is displayed in a different location, negotiations may be made to purchase the missing part and complete the series. The purchase process also involves updating the information about the series to include details of the purchase and the original collection details as held by the previous collector.
When people know about a museum’s concept, they can offer to donate cultural and historic objects. Communication may be done through phone, social media platforms or visits to the museum. Normally, the donor presents the object in images or in real and the museum’s management assesses it for suitability. Acceptance of donation means that the object is displayed among the museum’s collection accompanied by details on the object, the donor and the museum personnel who receives it.
Provenance research is the most specific way of obtaining information about old and new objects and materials. It implies delving into the historic origin of collections as well as expanding their value by presenting new elements of knowledge about the objects and their relevance in contemporary times.
Specifically, research is aimed at:
– expanding knowledge about the original details of an object;
– appraising the existing information and exploring topics that expand the knowledge of the object;
– exploring new ways of storage and marketing the museum’s heritage
– exploring specific educational activities that can render the heritage available to the
– acquiring information on policies and ethical guidelines on the collection, storage, and availability of the museum’s heritage to the public.
Provenance researching is realized through different methods that include:
- searching archival evidence (inventories, wills, court proceedings, etc),
- searching online literature,
- revisiting oral narratives,
- re-examining old photographs and images,
- comparing notes with other museums,
- consulting local experts or scholars,
- visiting public and university libraries, and
- re-consulting donors among others.
Museums can keep themselves informed through collecting, purchasing, donation, and research. Research is key in helping museums maintain their relevance as a reliable repository of cultural and historical knowledge. Keeping up with new developments enhances public credibility in the museum and helps sell that exhibition showcase to the wider public.