Monday, April 30, 2012

Museums of Home or ‘When you hold on to things a few decades too long’

‘and on the pavement lay
Carved stones of the Abbey-ruin in the park,
Huge Ammonites, and the first bones of Time:
Jumbled together; celts and caluments,
Claymore and snowshoe, toys in lava, fans
Of Sandel, amber, ancient rosaries.
Laborious orient ivory sphere in sphere,
The cursed Malayan crease, and battle clubs
From the isles of palm; and higher on the walls,
Betwixt the monstrous horns of elks and deer,

His own forefather’s arms and armour hung’

~Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Princess, 1860.

What makes a museum a museum?  It’s an honest question.  The definition of ‘museum’ has evolved over the centuries.  Once the Egyptians and Greeks held the museum to be a storehouse of knowledge; limited to the study and purview of scholars and visiting dignitaries that they wanted to show it off to.  Now, museums are places of learning for all; open (mostly), accessible (we hope), and educational (ideally).  Museums exist in all sorts of buildings (including travelling vans), in all sorts of subjects (I once visited a museum on the mythical history of magic) and can, as far as I’m concerned, also be counted as a ring of 3000 year old stone on some Scottish moor.  Museums are places of history.

The idea of a private collection is older than the concept of the ‘mouseion’.  The Romans quite enjoyed collecting old much so that they copied what they couldn’t get originals of.  The last 1000 years of history has seen private collections surge.  They are the origin of the modern museum after all.  But are they still acceptable?  Are we still allowed, as private individuals, to keep a collection of historical artefacts that no one, beyond friends and family, will ever see?

Tricky question.  The ideal answer is no.  Anything of historical value should be in a public collection at an appropriate museum.  But there’s the rub, because more often than not, the objects will be kept in storage and never see the light of day except – perhaps – if they are deemed important enough for scholarly study.  Maybe, one year, for a few days, perhaps.  Would it not be better if they were in a private home where, at least, a few dozen people could marvel and enjoy? 

I have a feeling most of you are shaking your heads, but I might be pleasantly surprised.  I don’t have an answer myself.  I don’t have an answer because my family has been treading that treacherous ground for over sixty years.  I could say one thing and be a hypocrite, or say another and be a horrible museologist.  Those aren’t really good choices.  So, in the age old way of avoiding the question, I’m going to tell you a lovely story...and then you can decide.

The whole thing is a bit hazy.  Most stories are.  There are a few things I’m not quite certain about, but I’ll try to fill in the blanks anyways.

In the 1940s my great-grandfather was given a beautiful gift.  It was a set of ceremonial clothing from the Blackfoot Indian Tribe that originated in Southern Alberta.  The story of how he came to be given this is lost, though rumour remains.  We do know that the gift was made by the native man’s wife, who had made the clothing for him.  It was barely worn.  The beadwork is a thing of beauty just on its own.

But that is not the start of the story.  A decade earlier my great-grandparents had built a summer house in central Ontario, as one typically did in those days.  My great-grandmother loved antiques, and had a house full of them.  At the summer house, everything was new (though it’s all antique now).  They lined the walls with photographs and paintings and shipped in wood furniture from Montreal.  It was all a little kitschy though, as summer houses usually are.  The colours were sort of horrible, the decor was sort of outdated and everyone loved it.  What made them decide to hang a group of Indian textiles on the hallway wall is beyond me.

What made them decide to thumb tack them into place is beyond my comprehension.  And there that have stayed, for over sixty years; through plus 40* humid temperatures, and -40* ice storms, in a completely unregulated, pest-infested, smokers’ house!  The very idea makes me shudder.  I’m sure you are doing the same. 

From my earliest memories I remember staring at these garments.  Perhaps they are the reason I am a museologist.  What I do know is that, despite conversations over the years, no one in the family thought to seriously raise the point that such items would be better off in a museum until this time last year.  Ironically, I was not the one to mention it.  A cousin who lives in Alberta, not far from where the Blackfoot tribe originated, first raised the issue.  Things moved shockingly swiftly after that.  And so, last August, the family availed themselves of my expertise; the garments were carefully removed from the rusted nails upon which they hung; lovingly package in acid-free wrapping; and packed in a box for shipment to The Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park [].  After conservation work is completed, they should be put on display.

So now the walls that have been filled for my whole life-time are bare, but the view no longer induces a panicked worry about the destruction of historical artefacts.  And now, many, many more people can enjoy the objects than would ever have seen them in a summer house in central Ontario.  However, a piece of my family history is now gone, and that is a sentimental issue that will take some time to settle.  It seems, almost, like giving away a piece of our pasts...back to the people whose past it really is, of course.  This raises many points, not least about private collections and native object repatriation.  Certainly the last twelve months have been a personal learning experience for myself and my family in these areas.  But ultimately, we know we made the right choice.  I hope one day to visit the museum and see them in their proper place.
[This was crossposted at The Attic as well.]

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Things They Don't Tell You

There is a very long list.

When you apply for a PhD programme at a university, you focus on the practicalities of it. The references letters you need to get; the previous transcripts you need to track down; the proposal that has to be crafted and perfected and, rather more importantly, the research question that you really need to think of. And it really needs to sound good.

After this, when you are accepted into your university of choice (one hopes), you are so thrilled that the practicalities of what is about to happen end up forgotten for a good few months. And then you become so busy with moving to a new place, administration, familiarisation and meeting people that, once more, you forget why you are there in the first place.

For the first week or so after you begin your PhD programme, things chug along like any other degree. It is only after a week or two goes by that you realise that you aren’t actually attending classes. This is the biggest difference from any previous degree. Another week or two after that, and the introductory weeks of meetings and seminars and mad scrambling to figure things out wears off and you have a sudden epiphany: you are going to be here for the next three years with your nose in a book, your fingers on the keyboard and, if you are very lucky, occasional breaks for fieldwork in a city that is not this one. Somewhere about November , the reality of the situation sinks in. It is at this point that all the things that you were told in the first few weeks become completely meaningless.

The first thing that they tell you during orientation is that doing a PhD is a 9-5 job. This is truth. What they don’t add to that statement is that, outside of those hours, there are departmental obligations, teaching, admin work, independent projects, research that is not your own, volunteer jobs, actual jobs, and an endless list of things that, although not mandatory, you really are supposed to show up for. Quickly, your 9-5 Monday to Friday week becomes your 8-8 Monday-Saturday week. Other weeks, there are no Sundays either. Sometimes there will be so much work that you will go weeks without taking more than a few hours off one afternoon to run into the centre for a few things of importance. You will exhaust yourself. You will never take a holiday unless you specifically plan one. Christmas is meaningless unless you go somewhere else where you are completely unable to do work. When the undergraduates and graduate students get reading week and Easter holidays, you will quietly glare at them behind their backs and go back to reading the stack of books on your desk.

But that’s alright, because you will quickly find that any attempts to actually take a holiday that does not go to the extreme of going away and leaving your computer behind, will not amount to anything. You will not be able to turn your brain off. Half-way through your Christmas holidays you will wake up at 2am one day with a brilliant idea of yet another aspect of your thesis that you need to research. And all you will want to do is research it right that moment. We do not do a PhD thesis because we are bored. We do it because we are passionate about the topic, we believe in its importance to the industry or even the world, and we enjoy it. You live, you breathe and you sleep your research questions.

It’s not a 9-5 job, but I quickly realised, around about my third supervision meeting in as many weeks, in the third week of October with a 5000 word paper due already that that was completely okay. I’d be bored otherwise. 9-5 leaves a lot of free hours to twiddle your thumbs. No doubt many of you would argue that that leaves a great many hours for a social life, but that is what undergrad is for. Your social life quickly steps aside in the face of a burning research question that may change your chosen field of study. Occasionally you will miss it, and that will lead to dinner or a quick coffee with someone who is also so busy with their own research that finding a moment that you are both free will take weeks to organise. And neither of you will actually mind this fact. You will live with people for the sake of your sanity, because otherwise you will go days without seeing another human being. You will go to the office, not because it is conducive to work, but because every once in a while you really do need to remind yourself that there are dozens of other people in your department in the same boat as you. Most days, that is all the comfort you need.

There will be days where you absolutely love what you do and what you are researching. You will remember why you wanted to spend three years doing this in the first place. There are other days where you will question everything; your sanity and your thesis question included. And there will be a great many middle days. That is the rollercoaster that is life. And it is a thrilling ride.