Multiplying our senses of caring at the museum

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Multiplying our senses of caring at the museum: Saving, nurturing and beyond

In my previous blog post, I invited you on a virtual conceptual tour into the imaginary of The Living Room. Today I wish to dwell on the conception of care at museums and propose extending our sense of what it means to care beyond our inclinations to save at all costs. 

In my previous blog post, I invited you on a virtual conceptual tour into the imaginary of The Living Room. Today I wish to dwell on the conception of care at museums and propose extending our sense of what it means to care beyond our inclinations to save at all costs. 

In The Living Room, we question what it means to care at the museum today and attempt to multiply our senses of caring. We are intrigued by Caitlin DeSilvey’s invitation to think of preservation beyond saving and currently collaborate with her to navigate the similarities and differences between her work in the context of ruins and ruination and the museum – essentially traversing an inside/outside boundary. The question of what it could mean to care today is crucial for our work, but in a broader context it is also becoming increasingly important in contemporary debates in museology focusing on the growth and de-growth of collections. For example, Jennie Morgan and Sharon MacDonald have recently described a tension in the attitude towards disposal at museums: between wanting to save everything and making space for new acquisitions. Following Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s encouragement – in the introduction to her book Matters of Care – to pay attention to moments where the question of how to care is insistent yet not easily answerable, we particularly consider how to care for unloved, disposable, deaccessioned objects at the fringes of the museum. But let us progress slowly and begin by looking at the self-given conceptual coupling of caring and saving at the museum before turning to other ways of caring that can extend and challenge our senses of what it means to care.

What does it mean to care at the museum? The museum is a temporal portal connecting past, present and future. However, a crucial premise for this kind of time travel is that things are kept in a state of permanence. In this context, life processes can be devastating leading to deaccessioning and loss. This is where collection care enters the picture. At museums, we attempt to interrupt the natural decay of objects and suppress life processes in collections to secure the material referents of the past to be passed on to future generations. To enable objects and the potential material knowledge they hold to travel through time, we rely on collections care: the careful maintenance of objects in (almost) stable states. As Simon Knell describes it in his introduction to Care of Collections, the current paradigm of preventative conservation particularly in Western culture entails a focus on the collection as a whole monitoring macro-environmental factors such as light, humidity, temperature and pests. Collection care is about isolation and stability saving things from the flux of life. Caring for objects becomes a matter of saving them from ourselves, environmental factors, even time itself. The museum object ideally resides in an in-between building up and breaking down – a hypometabolic state between life and death. In such a state, objects hibernate solely maintaining their material properties and historical significance for our cultural heritage. We care for objects to save them ideally for perpetuity.

A peek into the collections at Medical Museion after objects have been packed. Photo: Martin Grünfeld

Now to extend our sense of caring, we might look elsewhere for other practices of care. The maintenance and use of scientific collections have had profound implications for my thinking of collections care beyond saving. For example, if we look at fly stock centers described recently by Jenny Bangham, we find different practices of caring. Parallel with the paradigm of preventative conservation within the museum world, the care for a stock of flies applies a holistic viewpoint, instead of taking care of single flies as objects of the collection. Both the museum collection and the fly stock center share a macroenvironmental focus on temperature, light, humidity, gatekeeping, and so on that render them sites of controlled metabolism. Yet in contrast to our sense of caring as saving, caring for fly stocks entails a continuous process of life and death. Flies are typically kept in vials, which must be maintained daily to remain living. Because the adult fly lives for about a month, there is an ongoing process to maintain the vitality of a collection. A dynamic process that keeps the stock as an object in a permanent state. Each individual fly is not an object in the collection, but a mere substitutable part of a living culture that precisely depends on their continuous substitution to persist.  As Bangham points out, this is a consequence of the impossibility of suspending fly stocks by freezing embryos for future use. Fly stocks must be nurtured to persist as living cultures.

On the 5th floor in the Mærsk tower, Ole Kjærulff and team host 200 000 Drosophila flies for research. Photo: Simon Skipper

What can we learn from caring for fly stocks you may wonder? Taking over the idea of caring as nurturing may seem dangerously odd for (at least) two reasons: first, in fly stocks they care for living organisms not “dead” things, and second, nurturing in the museum context would often lead to unstable collections, decomposition and loss suspending the amazing time travelling capabilities of the museum. However, it is important to emphasize that my aim is not to transform the museum under the reign of a temporary present. Rather, I believe that we must reimagine the lifecycle of objects at the fringes of the museum reworking the end of their lifecycle in a less rigid and destructive fashion than what the binary accessioning/deaccessioning usually allows. What I wish to propose is that maybe we shouldn’t just focus on de-growth when considering disposal at the museum but also nurturing re-growth. 

In The Living Room, we develop new practices of caring better suited for accommodating objects at the end of their lifecycle – deemed disposable and insignificant. New modes of caring transgressing the dichotomy between value and waste and pointing towards re-growth. Modes of caring that resonate with Bellacasa’s modification of Tronto’s notion of care. While Tronto’s notion of care is linked to a “we” – the humans who care, Bellacasa develops a disruption of the subjective-collective behind the caring “we” and democratizes caring agency beyond the human (e.g., worms holding together worlds by composting). Likewise In The Living Room, we are collaborating with heritage eaters such as fungi and larvae to redeem the material potential of the allegedly insignificant objects at the fringes of the museum. As William Wimsatt suggests, although a thing does not necessarily have a function for each different environment, functions are dependent on environments. Entering The Living Room transforms the functions of things. They become sources of nutrition for heritage munching organisms such as fungi and larvae. This may seem destructive, but caring beyond saving allows objects at the end of their lifecycle to proliferate into multiple modes of existence becoming a material basis for sustaining a population of heritage eaters and in the same process turning into minor stories and tiny sounds. Perhaps we can make deaccessioned objects tell new stories, maybe even sing? 

Our specially constructed box currently hanging in The Living Room. Mixed objects, Pink oyster mushrooms grown in discarded medical books and JRF contact microphones allowing us to explore the sonic entanglement of objects. Photo: Sara Valle Rocha.

Our practice of caring places objects in new (unexpected perhaps weird) relations with the living and allows them to proliferate into new modes of existence challenging what significance and value means at the museum today. And transforming a small part of the museum’s basement into a hospitable site for unusual entanglements not only transgressing organic/inorganic domains but in the process making conservation practice visible, providing material for art and touching our sense of value, self and boundaries. A way of caring beyond saving hosting and nurturing life processes at the museum.

This is a shortened and revised version of a paper I presented in February 2020 at the conference Playing and operating: functionality in museum objects and instruments at the Philharmonie de Paris la Musique in Paris. 

Further readings

Bangham, Jenny. 2019. “Living Collections: Care and Curation at Drosophila Stock Centres”. BJHS Themes 4: 123–47.

DeSilvey, Caitlin. 2017. Curated decay. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Knell, Simon. 1994. “Introduction: the context of collections care”. In Care of collections, Simon Knell (ed.), 1–10. London: Routledge.

Morgan, Jennie, and Sharon Macdonald. 2018. “De-growing museum collections for new heritage futures”. International Journal of Heritage Studies 15 (1): 1–15. 

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2017. Matters of care. Bd. 41. Posthumanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wimsatt, William C. 1972. “Teleology and the logical structure of function statements”. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, A 3 (1): 1–80.