Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Would you use a shovel that's been on display? It's not old, nor is it delicate, but as someone who presumably works or enjoys museums, could you bring yourself to use it? Would you be able to put that shovel back in its display case afterward? These are questions many visitors and museum staff rarely ask themselves because we know we're not supposed to touch the objects, let alone use them! We're supposed to protect and conserve objects! But why? Why is the shovel no longer a shovel? What instinct tells us that the fancy shovel behind the glass is no longer for digging? Is it the value of the historical context? Do we no longer see the shovel as a shovel? In this piece, I seek to argue that the reason many would gasp at the thought of digging up a root with the fancy shovel is a series of learned behaviors reinforced through societal norms, personal experiences, and the very fabric of an individual’s worldview brought on by the deification of an object.
Object deification, elevation or “enlightenment” happens when an object enters a museum collection and ceases to be perceived as the same object. Global economist and material cultures scholar Dr. Arjun Appadurai describes the object’s transformation from the “mundane” object to the museum artifact as occurring when a source of authority connects an object to a narrative or idea, and imbues that object with importance. It is in this way that mundane objects, like shovels, become driving forces behind a narrative in an exhibition, where milk jugs receive labels and shoes gain a spirit of the past.
This phenomenon, with these examples, are grounded in Western culture. Much of the literature about this phenomenon comes from authors working with western concepts of human-object contact. One of the ways Appadurai explains the worth of an object to a society is how often that object’s path has been altered. For example, for a gardener, a broken shovel loses its value when it is no longer functional; the shovel’s path comes to an end. For museum objects, the path of an ordinary shovel is changed when some form of new value is added. This value is recognized by an authority (usually a person) to be beyond its mere utility. This authority imbues the extra value of this hypothetical shovel and brings it to a museum curator/ registrar/ exhibit designer. Where the elevation of mundane objects, like this shovel, may have once come from a previous owner’s family members or through its use, the deification of objects seems to happen on a grander scale as they enter recognized cultural institutions.
Bruno Latour furthers the human-/institutional-object connection and changing relationship changes is with their Actor-Network Theory. Actor-Network Theory connects people, culture, place, context, and things within a great net of meaning that manipulates how people form and interact with objects and concepts. Latour’s work breathes life into objects as they take on meaning with not only who and why they are created, but where they travel, who engages with them, and what they mean to those who interact with them. If Appadurai’s work explains what people see in museum objects, Latour’s work further explains why things end up in museums, and the deification of objects is nearly universal for all those who interact with museums. Human actors on Latour’s Network shift the path of an object when they agree on its value and an elevated object is made. Visitors and museum staff fall into networks when engaging with objects when they enter the western museum setting. The value of an object may be different for every individual who interacts with it, but there are shared points on the network that guides behavior and produces a shared understanding of value.
By combining Appadurai and Latour’s theories to explain object deification, we are able to see how and why objects are deified within the museum sphere. Museums sit at a node within a vast cultural and physical network that is formed through interactions between fluid individuals, societies, and the materials that are formed in unison. So, why do we see museum objects as less or more than their non-museum counterparts? Actors engaging with an elevated object will likely not use that object in its original manner, as its value on the Network often exceeds its value as a mundane object. So we have a decent grasp on how the fancy shovel changes in the museum setting. How do we as museums deal with the issues this line of thinking presents?
Almost like peeling back a veil of cloth from a board of scribbled notes, red twine, and grainy photographs, coding object deification within museums presents a series of issues with power structures, barriers between visitors and objects, and the inconsistent treatment of objects within the museum space.
When museum staff have a better grasp on their power to transform objects in their museum, they can manipulate and use this object deification within their selected narratives for the message and community the museum serves. This manipulation has the greatest utility in the decolonization of the museum space or removing the traditional power that European-Americans have over nearly the entire spectrum of historical narratives in the United States. If we understand that museums can take the mundane and make it special, we can refocus collections and exhibits to reform and cement histories that serve changing communities or cultures placed on the outskirts of society. An approach to using this power within the context of decolonization is allowing these marginalized communities to have greater control over the accessioning of objects within the museum and elevate their objects on their terms. A simple comb or piece of art is elevated within the museum and causes a rethinking of the space and gives away some of the museum’s power over people who are allowed to further deify the mundane objects that they feel represent them. The true test of a museum’s ability to work within its community is its willingness to give up power.
Furthering the confusion and moral and professional dilemmas, we have the February 24th Russian invasion of Ukraine and the utilization of museum artifacts in the defense of the state. An image has been released depicting Second World War Era tank traps being used to block roads throughout Kyiv. Many of the tank traps or “hedgehogs” being used have been marked as accessioned items as a part of the collection and pieces that should no longer serve a purpose outside of the museum. Though there they are, ensuring armored vehicles and Russian transports have a difficult time moving through Ukraine’s capital city. This is an extreme case as the very foundations of Ukrainian society and the democracy they have slowly built since the fall of the Soviet Union is at stake. The museum’s staff formally in charge of these objects likely did not have a say in whether their collection pieces would be used as modern fortifications, but the government as an extension of the people it represents chose to put these objects at risk to provide some form of protection against invading forces. The people of Ukraine decided that the deification of objects from the past was less important to them than the added safety these objects represent. Was this a representation of the community taking control of object deification? Yes. Is this under the best of circumstances? No, but situations like this represent the possibilities and limits people are willing to reach to start pulling museum objects out of the collection.
Alex Adelmund is interested “in the connection between people, objects, and difficult history. I mainly study firearms, camouflage, and colors. Museums are the perfect place for all of the above, so that’s where I’m hanging my hat. I also like Red Blends.” To reach out to Alex, email us at email@example.com.