One thing that pisses me off about museums and historical sites is when they don’t have any documentation of the truly unique aspects of their collection. No catalogs, monographs, research or historical books in a gift store filled with stuff for kids to acquire with their $5 of field trip funds. Some museums are a brilliant exception, like the fabulous Museum of London, which has a wealth of information available for the enthusiast (and also some very nice, functional catapult/pencil sharpeners for under 5 quid).
I have been known to take trains, buses and circuitous routes to reach obscure special interest museums where I am not allowed to take photos, but they don’t bother to supply any of their own! If you’re lucky, some places will have a handful of postcards of their most famous exhibits, usually from the least useful angle for understanding the object at hand. If you ask for images or reference materials on the parts of the collection that aren’t available anywhere else, the nice lady behind the counter will blink at you as if you have two heads. “Why yes, that is one of the earliest firearms in England. We don’t have any pictures–why?” It’s like they’ve lost track of what their collection is about. Hint: it’s not about entertaining squadrons of eight-year-0lds.
Good museum planning involves a variety of text to support the exhibit, usually identifiable by large, medium and small type fonts. The large type gives a handy title to the thing you’re seeing. The medium type is often a paragraph or so of basic description–what it is and what can it be used for. Sometimes a bit of useful cultural history. But the researcher revels in the small type. Maker, date and place of origin, date of discovery, materials list, fabrication techniques. If you are really lucky, there are pamphlets on hand with much more information that really places the thing in context.
I know many modern audiences don’t read anymore, so the small type–and even the medium type–might scare them away. There are now handy audio tours of many places which often incorporate medium type material. If you are very lucky, they even have more codes which allow you to get the small type as well–man, I love it when they get that deep! The museums of Germany mostly did quite well on that count. Enter code 7569023 if you *really* *really* want to know more about this obscure medieval object. Yes, yes I do!
But then I have to take lots of notes, and often listen to the clip over and over to get it all down, and even then I will likely have misspelled something, making it hard to look up later. So I still appreciate the actual signage and brochures posted in the museum itself. Some of my favorite local museums simply use typed pages about local history or provenance hung on a string next to the exhibit. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
I love museums, I do. Especially the small, strange and out of the way ones–but it saddens me to walk into an exhibit hall where I am lucky to find a single label with a few words. I have come to you for knowledge, and found not quite enough. Some of the most recent exciting discoveries in archaeology have, in fact, come from museum collections where the stuff has been known about for years, and nobody really looked at it until now.
So this is my plea. The school groups may be covering your electric bill and paying your staff–all of which is A Good Thing. But they are not the only audience, and perhaps even they can benefit from a greater attention to documentation. Where do the future archaeologists, historians, curators come from, if not from a kid whose interest is captured in some strange and wonderful corner of forgotten time?
I know that budgets are always a problem–but perhaps some of those older school groups could be put to use. Partnerships with high schools and universities could result in better documentation of the collections, as well as students who are more engaged with history, and any museum probably already has a docent with a decent digital camera and an on-line photo account through which people like me could acquire the images and information they need–and would willingly pay for!