As seen in my festive photo, our mindset is on Christmas. Here I am with my kiddos, husband, and Father Christmas celebrating the annual “Christmas Tree” at the museum this past week. Happy Holidays to all of you, may your merriment be full with the people you love. My wish for you is that you are given less STUFF and more time for all things that bring you joy.
It’s that time of year where I look around and sigh. As I get older I realize life isn’t always about the stuff we have but the experiences our life gives us. My 43 year old self needs to go back in time and tell my 15 year self, those Doc Martens and Guess jeans will mean nothing to your collective memory, however you will remember seeing Aerosmith nine rows from the front (before Steven Tyler was uncool), you will remember seeing Phantom of The Opera at the Pantages in Toronto, and you will remember ALL of the ski vacations to Mount Saint Saveur. I still have the concert t-shirt, the play tickets, and my ski hat…it is these objects that will tell the “story of me” to my children.
Let’s face it- the holidays are busy. I watch the people bustle from store to store in hopes of giving more “stuff” to their family and friends. We often have to look in our homes and ascertain where this stuff is going, so I ask my kids to take a look at their toys. What do you play with? What can we donate? What needs to be recycled? We NEED to make room.
This phrase is repeated from home to work, “We need to make room”. As a Curator, I am all about the “stuff” we collect. I am in the business of collecting and keeping things left behind and shelving them for years and years until one day they fulfill their museum destiny and are exhibited. But what about those objects that are never displayed? Why are they in the collection? Do we really need 25 pairs of skates, 20 apple peelers, 15 wool winders…well we do if they tell a great story. But I am going to guess, they don’t.
This is a very small sampling of the 100s of boxes to be sorted in the coming years.
So many skates, linens, and rolling pins.
It has only been in the last 35 years that museums have really started to collect with purpose, that we have been mandated by our provincial ministries to create policy and abide by a collecting standard. So that means for the 25 plus years prior to this…museums were collecting for the sake of collecting. I can guarantee that if you mention the 1970s to any museum curator, you will see their eye tick a little in the corner. That decade was a collecting boon for most museums.
Items were kept that have little or no value to the memory of the community it is supposed to represent. But they were “old” so museums kept them. UGH…what a job that faces today’s curator. We now need to sort what belongs and what doesn’t. Thankful for collecting mandates and procedure, today’s curator begins the journey.
It is not a job that a curator relishes. So like I do at home, I look around and ask - what can we move? What can we transfer to other museums? What needs to be disposed of? I know, I know, it seems almost sacrilegious to think of this within museum walls. But it is done and it is allowed.
It’s called de-accessioning, or recently a term I liked and heard in museum circles “de-growing”. It is the practice of a museum removing an accessioned item from their collection because it no longer fits within their collecting practices, policy, or mandate. It is done openly, transparently, and ethically. We are trained for this, I took courses on the ethical practices of de-accessioning. So please believe me, it is a thing! But it can be difficult to work through.
Curators express the difficulty of collecting the material culture of everyday life when faced with vast existing collections. They explain that these were assembled, partly, from anxiety to gather up what was anticipated at risk of being lost. Unlimited accumulation, and keeping everything forever, are being called into question, especially through the disposal debate which has gained in intensity over the past three decades. While often with some reluctance, setting limits by slowing collecting or even reducing collections through targeted letting go, or what is variously called ‘deaccessioning’, ‘disposing’, and ‘refining’ collections, are undertaken to facilitate ongoing collecting, amongst other goals”.
(Taylor and Francis Online, September 2018)
In the past year, we have examined the collecting policies of the museum, as well as other museums with similar mandates. We have taken road trips to visit sister sites, we have met and sought guidance from museum professionals whose only job is to de-grow and assess their collections. The conclusion, we are behind the curve in progressively undertaking to clean up our collection.
Over the coming years, and I mean years, we will be reviewing the collection, researching the contents to determine their relevancy to the history of County of Lennox and Addington, and streamlining our future intakes to fit the gaps we have in our collection. This will be done collectively as a museum team and methodically over time.
Areas of storage in the museum. There are over 12,000 objects held in the museum. Consisting of large scale furniture pieces, clothing, quilts, household goods, toys, military, transportation and agriculture objects.
Preliminary reviews suggests our collection gaps include life after World War 2, domestic life from the 1950’s- 1980s, yes we need to collect the 1980s, this decade is now vintage even burgeoning on historic. I would love to see more pop culture that includes fashion, music, toys, and science fiction. Our county loves sports but our museum collection doesn’t really reflect this. How do I tackle the gaps?
To start us thinking about these gaps, I am developing exhibits that bring awareness of these particular histories to the front. First on deck is “Game On! -Sport Stories in L&A”. This exhibit highlights athletes, sport events and groups in L&A. I have included stories that the museum has artifacts to support, but I have also invited local athletes and clubs to bring in their stories and items for display. I hope this exhibit nudges our patrons to think about their own sports collections and possible future donations to the museum collection.
L&A’s very own Britt Benn is contributing her RIO Olympic gear, photos and passes to this winter’s exhibit “Game On! – Sport Stories from L&A”
Remember not everything has to be OLD for it to be relevant to a museum. Objects are about the stories they tell. So an object from 10 years ago could be just as impactful to the history of Lennox and Addington as an object that is 100 years old. Museums collect for the future and need to collect the current happenings so that our grandchildren can enjoy them too!
The coming years will see me transferring the irrelevant and targeting gap areas. Our museum collection needs to reflect the people, events, and the places in which they came – always with L&A County at its core.
“The most common follow-up question when I tell people what I do for a living is: “Great! What’s that then?” It’s quite hard to answer. We don’t spend all day lurking in musty stores anymore; it’s all about people. It’s their stories and complexity that really make collections pop”. (Daniel Martin, Curator at Derby Museums, The Guardian, January 22, 2016)
A curator’s job in 2019 is challenging, but fun and full of hope and potential as we lead the charge in cleaning our museum collections so that we can better tell our stories through objects that have meaning, relevance, importance, and to make room for the stories to come.
Look around your own house today - what objects tell the “story of me”? What objects are there taking up space without much importance at all? The objects that capture your story will forever be important to you and your family, but other objects are easily pushed to the side and forgotten. This mirrors museum collecting too.
I sincerely hope you keep the things that tell your story. My concert t-shirt, play tickets, and ski hat are an important part of my youth – but looking deeper they also tell stories about music and what was happening in and around the city where I lived at that time in 1991. I love when objects are multi-layered like that. I often look for this in the museum objects we take in as well. Sometimes, the social history is as a key to the personal history it holds.
I hope one day we reduce the use of all the stuff and covet the memories and the items attributed to those events more, it generate less material culture but it is much richer in meaning. It will be make the jobs of future curators so much easier.