lost museums

A fascinating exploration of the afterlives of museums: Brown University’s Lost Museums Symposium:

…the symposium addresses the history of museums from a new direction: not their founding, but their disappearance. We know a great deal about how museums are born and how new collections come into being, but not nearly enough about how these fragile institutions pass out of existence, how artifacts decay and disappear as times and interests change.

Perhaps a trite comparison, but reading about this symposium brought me back episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow that I watched sometime in the 1990s. Among the varied items on display, was one that stood out: a couple had brought an elephant foot umbrella stand to be evaluated.

From the standpoint of the notion of a historical artifact, it was a fascinating piece. A stump of a leg, complete with toes and toenails, lined with brass. Aesthetically, for this particular modern viewer at least, it was ghastly. Ethically, it was horrifying. The Roadshow expert said as much himself: the piece was of esoteric interest, but within contemporary politics, had little resale value. (For those who might be interested, it looked something like this)

But what happens to pieces like these? To the collections they are in? What happens when collections are consolidated? What happens to the stories that such pieces tell? What new narratives emerge to take their place?

Too bad I’m nowhere near Brown University…. but for those of you who are, you can find the program here.


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