I’m a life – long collections organizer. This truth become evidenced by the recent unearthing of my elementary school stamp collection. With it, I discovered that I created an innovative numbering system to track stamps by theme, price, age and country. I have cared for and organized collections the majority of my life. I have been a fearless and strong advocate for art and artifacts for as long as I can remember.
Several years ago, in my former life as Senior Registrar at the Oakland Museum of California, I had the chance to jump out of my comfort zone and think about the public. I was invited to participate in a grant initiative that was meant to allow for museum staff to think in a more innovative way about programs and community. At the end of a half day symposium we were all tasked to go away and come up with a “small experiment with radical intent” that would, even in a small way, change the way we as museum staff can better engage with the public. We were told to think outside of both our wheel house and comfort zone; to expand our horizons to enhance the visitor experience.
I took this project very seriously. But I will admit: I was nervous. I am a registrar – I don’t generally deal with people or programs. I’ve spent most of my career ensuring that the public did not interact with collections. For this project, I worked closely with a colleague who was, by profession, an educator and thankfully, had a lot of experience dealing with people. Amy and I met many times to find an idea that would fit our task. As registrar I could handle collections in many ways. I measured them, examined them, photographed them, documented them and rehoused them. I was privy to their many stories. I cared about these objects. Sometimes what was compelling to me was the object’s background, not the actual thing I documented or housed. In getting to know the object, I often found myself caring about it, which meant that I ended up liking it more than similar objects that I knew nothing about.
The public doesn’t always get to know the stories that underlie the many things we collect in our museums. Our visitors don’t get to handle collections nor have the same intimate relationship with them that collections managers do. So what would happen if they did? What would they learn? What would I learn? Amy and I set out to answer these questions.
We started with the question “who?” Who would we work with? We quickly decided to work with a family – mother, father and 2 sons (both under 14) – who had worked with the museum before and they agreed to participate in our experiment.
We had to then determine the “what.” What objects would we select? To find an answer, we developed a questionnaire that asked the 2 boys about their interests – what they did in their spare time – what they liked to do when not in school. The answer was fairly predictable – sports. So I went through the collection and selected some interesting sports equipment: a new basketball and an old baseball bat.
The “where” and “when” fell into place – we chose a collections area often used by researchers that was set up for pubic access. The museum is open Friday nights so we invited the family to meet us at 5:00 which gave them time to enjoy the evening’s offerings after our discussion.
So, it was all arranged, but “how” would we do it? After much discussion, we determined a process: I put together a “registrar” kit for each boy that included white gloves, a tape measure and flashlight. We started the experience with a quick overview of what a registrar does. I explained why I wear gloves, how I examine an object and what I document. I asked them to put on their gloves. Then I handed each boy paired with a parent, an object and asked them to hold it, measure it, and examine it carefully. I handed one pair a basketball and the other a vintage baseball bat.
The basketball was signed by Jason Kidd – a local basketball player from UC Berkeley who then moved on to the NBA. I admittedly don’t know much about him, but thought, foolishly, that the boys would. I was wrong – they were too young. Luckily the parents, who were my age, did and were very excited about it. The basketball was new and still in its box. When I asked the first boy what he thought, he pointed out how strange it was to hold a basketball in the box since the first thing they would normally do was take it out of the box and play with it. By keeping it in the box it lost its appeal to him. Good point.
The second boy was handed a vintage wood baseball bat used by a player in the Pacific Coast League in the early 20th Century. I love this artifact. The wood is worn and smooth, a great toffee brown color from the combination of age and use. There were small dowels in the wood to repair an old crack. When I asked him what he observed he said a very simple thing: this bat was loved. He told me that the bat’s owner loved his bat. I asked him how he knew. He could tell it was loved because the player took the time to repair it instead of throwing it away. This answer stopped me in my tracks. Of course, I had seen the repair, but I had not really thought about it. In this day and age when people throw things away and replace them when they were broken, this boy noticed the love and care this player took with his bat. He made this insightful observation because he got to hold the bat, examine the bat and think about its story. He now cared about the object; he thought about the man who used it.
So why did we do this? We wanted to know if a kid with no museum experience would learn more about an object by getting closer to it. The answer was a resounding yes. He was able to learn more about it in a few minutes at that table than he probably would have if it had been in a case with a label explaining how the player repaired his bat. The bat told a story and he got it.
Now I realize this is not a practice that is easily scalable. We can’t let the public freely handle our collections. But what can we do? How can we offer programs and experiences that allow our public more intimate exposure to our collections? How can we use these kinds of experiences to engage our local communities? Can we use objects as talking points to open up dialogues about culturally or socially complicated issues?
I offer this story with hopes that it might inspire change in someone else’s practices. This “small experiment with radical intent” got me to think more about what I could do to help engage communities using collections. I personally learned a great deal and draw from this experience to help encourage courageous collaborations at museums I work with now. If I can help docents, volunteers, staff, and even the public understand that all objects have a history and that these histories can help tell a story I’ve then helped to generate some deeper understanding about our collections. The handling experiment was more than worthwhile. It changed me. I am a different collections manager because of it.
(photo courtesy of Tontra Love and Naji Love)