Steven Lubar — director of the public humanities programme at Brown University and keen observer of things museological — has just drawn his Twitter followers’ attention to a “nice” blog post on the problems of collecting contemporary artefacts written by National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens.

Stephens’ blog post revolves around Stanley (a driver-less vehicle that won a historic off-road American robot race in 2005), which she collected for the museum’s robot collection in 2009, and now takes as her point of departure for some reflections about “the risky business” of collecting contemporary history.

Risky? Created by the Stanford Racing Team, Stanley was “a giant technical step forward for autonomous vehicles”, a technology which may soon help reduce accidents and highway congestion and let drunk people drive home in their own car. Nevada, California and Florida already permit them on state roads. Sounds to me like a pretty obvious artefact to acquire.

But Carlene Stephens was nevertheless somewhat uneasy about bringing Stanley into the national collection and about loaning it to the National Air and Space Museum’s new Time and Navigation exhibition (which is bound to open in March next year).

She was “nervous”, she writes, because collecting Stanley stood in contrast to her historical training and interests. As a curator, she was used to make acquisition decisions about artefacts for which there is “a body of existing research and documentation that verifies the importance of an object from long ago”. So usually, as she poignantly puts it, she practices “collecting from inside a comfort zone” (I like that expression!)

But when collecting contemporary objects like Stanley, she thinks that she “comes close to predicting the future”. And that, in her view, is why collecting contemporary historical artefacts is such a “risky business”:

Curators have to make educated guesses that today’s technical innovation will be tomorrow’s historic milestone. Curators who do contemporary collecting take the risk that an object making headlines today will remain representative of some important event or illustrative of how Americans absorbs new technologies. Such an object might even carry material evidence that inspires our successors to dig deeper into research we haven’t even imagined yet. Or maybe collecting such an object won’t have any of those useful outcomes. Maybe it will simply lie fallow forever after in storage. As I say, it’s a risky business.

Even though this particular artefact didn’t turn out an acquisition failure (“so far Stanley doesn’t disappoint” at all), Stephens’ argument is that collecting contemporary artefacts is perpetually risky because we have to make “educated guesses” about the future historical milestones.

Are museums really in the business of making “educated guesses” when they collect the contemporary material culture?. I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think Carlene Stephens’ argument is basically flawed and a major obstacle for developing good practice for contemporary collecting. And the flaw, in my opinion, is the presupposition that museums engage in collecting in order to preserve “tomorrow’s historic milestones”.

The presupposition is flawed, because there is no way we can know what “tomorrow’s historic milestones are”. We cannot predict what future historians and museum visitors would be interested in seeing in 10, 25 or 100 years from now. Actually, we don’t even know if anyone will be interested in historical museum artefacts then. Or if museums as we know them today will exist in 2050. Maybe there will be no historians and curators! And do we have any reason whatsoever to expect that people will be interested in “milestones” (whatever that is)?

In my view, collecting for a ‘known unknown’ (‘known’ because historical time won’t stop, and ‘unknown’ because we cannot look into the crystal ball) is probably the worst rationale there is for new museum acquisitions. I suggest instead that it makes much more sense to collect whatever today’s museum curators and the public at large find fascinating and are willing to investigate their professional or lay enthusiasm and extra working hours to acquire.

After all, what fills most museum reserve storage areas today is the accumulated results of earlier curators’ and amateur collectors’ passion for what was then contemporary material culture. For example, Henry Wellcome‘s collecting “strategy” was to bring in as much fascinating stuff about medicine and ethnography, both contemporary and of the past, he could lay his hands on. The result is one of the world’s richest and most wonderful museum collections.

Staff from Medical Museion collecting contemporary medical objects at the museum’s annual Garbage Day, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

Similarly hundreds of historical medical collections around the world are the result of more or less serendipitous collecting by medical doctors and happy amateurs. Nobody told these people to be nervous or to avoid the “risky business” of collecting the medical artefacts they saw around them — artefacts which they, for whatever more or less irrational reason, thought were worth preserving.

Had the curators and collectors of the past been as anxious as Carlene Stephens we would hardly have any museums today. And that’s the major problem with her argument. If the idea of collecting as a “risky business” becomes widespread and if museums curators and the amateur collectors become increasingly nervous and anxious about acquiring contemporary culture, museums of the future will definitely have a huge lacuna in their holdings from the late 20th and early 21st century.

The only thing that’s risky about collecting contemporary artefacts is the belief it’s risky.

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  • Steven Lubar

    In which I come to the defense of Carlene Stephen’s blog post on collecting Stanley, and agree with Thomas Soderqvist that we need to theorize contemporary collecting better…

    Museums (at least American museums) commit to keeping things forever, so there’s always a risk to accessioning something into the collection. The decision to accept an artifact has a cost: acquisition costs, processing costs, and then significant storage costs, ad infinitum. The life-cycle cost of each accession to a museum would surprise the general public, and even many curators.

    And collecting one thing means not collecting something else, what economists call opportunity cost. And so decisions must be made.

    The benefit of collecting any particular artifact is uncertain. Will it be exhibited? Will researchers take advantage of it? Hard to say, with many objects.

    So there’s a certain cost to collecting, both real in opportunities missed, and unknown benefit. That means there’s risk. Carlene Stephen’s essay was a nice description of some of those risks.

    And the particular object Carlene describes – a very large object, by museum standards, with significant costs to collect and move and store, and one in the early stages of technological development – makes her case even stronger. Large artifacts require more careful consideration of benefit than small: if you’re going to collect, say, one car every few years, what should it be?

    More interesting, though, is the issue of collecting the right stage of technological developments. The American History Museum, like most large museums that collect technological artifacts, has a large collection of early personal computers Each one, at the time, seemed a breakthrough. Each one seemed essential for the collection. In retrospect, a few decades later, the fine distinctions between the Commodore Plus/4 or the Pronto Series 16 or the DEC Rainbow may not seem so important. The Stanley self-driving car might be a fine choice to capture the early history of self-driving cars, but it may be that the first car to drive by itself on regular roads, in regular traffic, or the first one in an accident driving on regular roads, in traffic, or the one that… one could go on at length. You only get to pick one; there’s a risk that you won’t pick the right one.

    Thomas’s suggestion that it’s a mistake to try to pick milestones, though, is very important. Does “milestone” suggest a flawed model of technological change? The patent system sometimes sets our expectations about how to think about what’s important in new technologies, and it’s a bad model for the history of technology, and museums. We need to theorize “importance” in technology better than we do.

    But museums make these decisions all the time, and even without good theory, curators get good at it. It’s one of the skills – little-appreciated skills – of the curator. Thomas Soderqvist suggests that we should “collect whatever today’s museum curators and the public at large find fascinating and are willing to investigate their professional or lay enthusiasm and extra working hours to acquire.” “Find fascinating” needs to be thought through. Automobile collectors collect every conceivable car; museums shouldn’t. As a former curator, I had to have an answer for why the Smithsonian didn’t collect one of each beanie baby (, which many in the public at large found fascinating.

    And museums set up structures to focus collecting: collections committees, collections acquisitions request essays. (These should be online, by the way; perhaps Carlene would be wiling to post the request to the Collections Committee online, to show the thoughtfulness that went into this decision.)

    There’s a long history of contemporary collecting in museums, and a long history of controversy about it. There are ways to make these decisions less risky. Less onerous deaccession policies are one way to improved contemporary collecting. Some museums have considered a category of collecting that is more of a holding pattern than a permanent acquisition; artifacts can be easily deaccessioned in five or ten years, if they turn out to have been a bad choice.

    I don’t know the details of collecting Stanley, but from a distance, it seems to have been a good choice. Was it the best possible choice? Only time will tell. Collecting contemporary historical artifacts is a risky business.

  • Hi Steven — thanks for your lengthy and well-argued reply, much appreciated. However, I think you largely miss the point when you spend so much space in your reply defending Carlene Stephens’ blog post with reference to the cost of collecting things like Stanley.

    You are of course right about the economic risk-taking in collecting in general. If one adds up the costs for locating things, transporting them to the museum, cleaning and conserving them, the time costs for curation and registration, putting things on shelves, storage costs, etc. etc. one ends up with a rather hefty bill. That’s why we cannot collect everything, only a infinitesimal fraction of the natural and cultural things produced.

    And you are of course also right that collecting big things, like rockets, cars, locomotives etc. that big tech museums excel in make the costs of collecting even bigger. Airplanes cost much more to collect and take more space than insulin pumps.

    So I have no quarrel with the cost and size argument as such. But — the problem of collecting cost is the same for all kinds of objects independent of their age. An early 20th century locomotive costs approximately the same as a early 21st century one (maybe more, since curating costs are higher if you have to dig for technical specifications).

    So the cost argument isn’t really relevant for the discussion whether collecting *contemporary* objects is particularly risky, as opposed to collecting stuff for which there is “a body of existing research and documentation that verifies the importance of an object from long ago”.

    Carlene Stephens doesn’t argue with reference to cost either. Her argument is that collecting contemporary stuff is risky because we cannot know what “tomorrow’s historic milestones” are. That’s the argument I disagree with.

    As you say, the questions of what a “milestone” is (vs. “fascination” etc), is more interesrting that the question of cost. And more generally: What historiographic assumptions lie behind collecting? Let’s discuss this instead of the cost issue.

  • There is risk involved, sure, but I think there is risk in
    every curatorial decision. Stanley is not going
    into storage for 50 years, he is going on display now so I don’t think
    Carlene needed to predict the future at all. She saw what was important
    and collected it. I don’t think it was a risky decision on her part. It was
    more than an educated guess, too. I think it was an informed decision.

  • I agree about the issues of historiography raised here: historic milestones seems a problematic concept looking back just as much as looking to the future. That said, this approach did define some museums. You suggest that museums are made up of artefacts collected as contemporary objects, and point to Henry Wellcome, but this is hardly typical of national museums. The Science Museum, for example, was initially to be a display that, precisely, exhibited technological milestones (and the scientific principles from which they were supposed to have arisen), as decided retrospectively.

    As a rather different example, the National Maritime Museum’s historic collections were brought together from the 1930s. As far as many of its scientific instruments were concerned, these were objects of rather little interest and value until collectors began acquiring antiques in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The NMM saw them as illustrating certain scientific principles and the progressive development of astronomy and navigation.

    In other words, I am not sure that the assumptions and reasoning that went into assembling collections in the past are much guide for us today. That said, those collections have shaped our institutions, suggesting key areas for current focus, but also taking up so much space in our stores that we are no longer able to collect at whim and will.

  • Charlotte Connelly

    There are lots of reasons for collecting, and the ‘historic milestones’ argument is only one reason. I recently carried out a collecting project around mobile phones in Cameroon, and part of my remit was to collect the mundane as well as the extraordinary, but all identified within a tight brief.

    What I think we do have to be aware of is that we will be judged by future historians, whether or not we’ve had the foresight to collect the milestone technologies that will appear in retrospect to have shaped future progress. Perhaps they’ll look at the communications collection at the museum and say, ‘the Science Museum spent resources on collecting in Cameroon, it must have been a hub of mobile phone invention and progress.’ They’d be wrong. It’s purely an exemplar of wider changes that relate to mobile phones in developing countries now, in the early 21st century.

    My job as a curator is not only to select representative and interesting objects, but always to document my processes well so that I don’t leave a misleading trail of historical evidence. That process also makes me rigorous in collecting things that really are of interest, unlike earlier curators who had seemingly infinite storage and acquired anything and everything, rarely recording why. This isn’t to say we can’t still collect things just for aesthetic reasons, or that everything has to be extraordinary, but it is sensible to explain somewhere that that’s the motivation.

    It’s very unlikely that we’ll ever go back to encyclopaedic collecting where we try to get an example of everything, so it’s even more important that as curators our decisions are backed up by some kind of argument for spending large sums on preserving anything in perpetuity.

  • Michael Rhode

    In Washington, DC, there are several institutions that collection history of medicine. American History tended towards the milestones, but also things such as materia medica, based on a division of labor with the Army Medical Museum made in the 1870s. Meanwhile the AMM’s successor, the National Museum of Health and Medicine tends towards a more comprehensive approach, or did until they were downsized in 2011. I’m more of a fan of the ordinary rather than the heroic, or milestone, collecting. Someone is always going to have gotten the first artificial heart, but that’s going to be well described in the literature. What about the 45th version which actually keeps people alive for more than 6 months? Sure there is an economic cost towards keeping items, higher with a car of course, but honestly, what’s the real cost? 1. Initial collecting including shipping and cataloging, 2. a storage container, and then 3. warehouse space. #3 can be had very cheaply over the long term. #4 would be conservation, but honestly a lot of material doesn’t see a conservator until someone actually wants to use it, no?