Can a museum ‘Re-imagine’ our relationship to things

In previous blogs I suggested ways in which museums could be part of a re-crafting of a world where climate change and peak oil has limited our capacity for economic growth. A low carbon future is imagined where prosperity relies not on an individual’s ability to consume but on his or her capacity to co-operate and collaborate.

Last Wednesday I attended a workshop at the New Economics Foundation to develop ideas for a Happy Museum. We envisaged an organisation whose principle purpose would be to use material culture to embody wellbeing and enable a good life in a no-growth economy. So far, much of my thinking has been in the context of how organisations might change their behaviour to encourage both self reliance and collective action. They might co-produce more of their work with the public, provide opportunities for people to learn new skills, value and share their material and non-tangible assets to greater benefit.

However as Bridget McKenzie eloquently notes, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than that we face the fact that we have made our planet unlivable by our fetish for things. And what is a museum, fundamentally, other than a monument to our fetish for things?” The greatest opportunity for museums to lead Transition is to reshape the relationship between humans and objects. Unbridled economic growth has locked our identities to the things we possess. Our individuality is shaped by what we own rather than the relationships we have with other people or our surroundings. Moreover, the atomisation of economic production has meant that we are dependent on ever more specialist tools and objects to make more stuff (a godsend for the rivet-counter curator as his museum bursts with more and more specialist kit). This cycle, which seems impossible to break, has reduced our capacity for adaptability to change

Museums have encouraged this. If they are not seduced by the glamour of treasure, they are overly concerned with narrative so that the sole purpose of objects is to tell a linear human story, invariably one of ‘progress’. In social history museums, whilst objects might contextualize a person’s relationship to economic production or political struggle, they hardly ever tell us about relationships between individuals.

MEAL is for the most part an exponent of this fetishism. We have working machinery (very popular with enthusiasts) which portrays the technological advancement in agriculture. Yet in general, rural life museums are a paean to the obsolete and the unadaptable.

Within our plans over the next few years to restore Abbot’s Hall and Crowe Street we intend to explore people’s stories through their relationships with each other not their things. Crowe Street Cottage’s last inhabitants were Dorothy Wilding and her husband, the former cook and horseman respectively, of the Abbots Hall estate. In the late Fifties the Misses Longe of Abbot’s Hall gave the Wildings an old fridge. The fridge was given 10 years before the Wildings had mains electricity, was used as a larder. When they were finally connected to the mains they refrained from ever plugging it in. This object is not a symbol of technological progress but one of friendship, of mutual support and respect between three women at opposing ends of the social spectrum.

A recent debate within Museum iD magazine asked whether museums are about stories or objects. I don’t think they’re about either. Museums are connectors between people, objects and the environment in which they exist and it is this complex relationship which they should seek to portray.

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