Mia Ridge wrote a very nice blog post recently on object-centered and object-driven approaches in the context of online exhibitions. Mia asks whether the object-driven exhibition format that most museums employ might clash with the object-centered practices that most often drive online exhibition.

I won’t comment directly on Mia’s interesting question of whether there is “a potential mismatch between the object-driven approach that exhibitions have trained museum audiences to expect and the object-centred approach they encounter in museum collections online” but rather examine the distinction between object-centered and object-driven approaches itself.

An object-centered approach, following art historian Bernard Herman is one in which the focus of study is on the object itself, specifically its physical attributes and its provenance; this is the kind of descriptive, check-list approach that forms most museums catalogues of their collections. An object-driven approach, on the other hand, emphasizes how objects relate to people and the cultures that make them.  It is the kind of culturally contextualizing approach that drives most exhibition making.

This distinction is useful in that it captures a great deal of what goes on in museum practice. But it also, I think, points to the narrow space that some of the most interesting qualities of objects are afforded.

The distinction reminded me of a critique that philosopher Graham Harman and others from what is called object-oriented ontology has developed about how objects tend to be approached in philosophy. Objects, Harman says, tends to be either undermined or overmined. Here is a quick description from Ian Bogost:

Undermining positions understand reality as smaller bits, be they quarks, DNA or mathematics. Ordinary things such as sheep or battleships become fictions, tricks that deceive minds too naive to understand their depths. Overmining positions take objects to be less real than the processes and circumstances that produce them.

The point of this duality is not that over- and undermining does not produce interesting and valuable knowledge about the world, but rather that neither entirely capture what things are and how we relate to them. There is a functional and effective irreducibility of things at various levels. The rock can’t exist without the atoms but is something distinct from those atoms. And the coffee cup has all kinds of social and cultural implications but it is not functionally reducible to these implications. As a result, what object-oriented ontology tries to do is to stick to the object in order to see what happens if we resist the urge to continually explain it entirely from above or below.

Tacking this critique on to the object-centered and object-driven approaches  to museum practice, it seems to me that a good dose of object-orientedness might be in order. This is because some of the most interesting, seductive and mind-bending qualities of objects cannot be deduced neither from the parts list of the object-centered approach nor the contextualizing instincts of the object-driven. Instead, they emerge in the very specific, contingent and materially embedded meeting with the object (I tried to outline something of what I think sticking with the object might entail in museum practice in this blog post last week).

While I do not subscribe wholeheartedly to an object-oriented philosophy, I am in full agreement with the sentiment behind it: that it is worthwhile to stick to the object as a discrete and functional entity in the world without continuously reducing it to something else. If we continually search for something below or above the object in order to classify or contextualize it, we run the risk of missing what Daniel Miller has described as the “…unexpected capacity of objects to fade out of focus and remain peripheral to our vision and yet determinant of our behaviour and identity…”

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