Minimalism. It’s a concept often used in interior and lifestyle design. Minimalism frees your space. It is intended to help you live a life without physical and emotional clutter.
It seems like a concept diametrically opposed to the purpose of museums. After all, the purpose of museums is to hold items in the public trust. Our purpose is to preserve and display history through artifacts. But is our current practice the best way to do so? Is there a better way to approach museum collections?
A common practice among new museums is accepting any items offered up for donations. This seems like a good idea at the present, but is short-sighted. Down the road, this will be a disaster. Even the most organized museum with solid accessioning procedures will create clutter for its future. In ten years or so, these museums will be inundated with artifacts. Most likely, many of these artifacts have never been removed from storage. Later curators will sift through these items during inventory and wonder why we’re wasting valuable space on it. These items seemed like a good idea at the time, when there was hundreds of square footage for it. But when your collections are bursting at the seams, you have to be more cognizant of the items you accept.
So what do we do? We need to approach accessioning with a minimalist mindset. Pretend your collection is already bursting at the seams, no matter what space you have. Is this item ever going to see the light of day? Is it important enough to take up precious space? After all, keeping that unknown hunk of metal now might well keep out a game-winning football years later. Why? Because deaccessioning is a much harder process. It is so mired in conflict that many museums fear deaccessioning.
Decluttering through Deaccessioning
Many museums are not in the privileged space of early accessioning. Most are facing the problem of shrinking space. Most are looking at the bag of dozens of pencils that once belonged to a prominent local figure. Who thought these were worth keeping in the first place? Are we planning on having a pencil exhibit in the future? And, if we are, did we need every single pencil this person ever touched? The answer is likely no. We don’t need to keep the tissue a governor once sneezed on. This is not an episode of hoarders. So, why did we keep them? Perhaps we were taking anything to fill the space in our museums. Perhaps we felt bad telling donors that their generous donations were not accepted. Whatever the case, we are now faced with having to get rid of it.
I’m not going to go too in-depth into deaccessioning, since it is a difficult process. It is a complicated procedure with several legal hoops you have to jump through. However, doing so is important to the well-being and the future of a museum. As a general rule, here’s what to deaccession.
Unimportant items. You are a professional, and you have a valuable opinion on what is important. You have a pretty solid idea on what needs preserved and what can be displayed. Do you really need an antique eraser? Are you a historic stationary museum? Then probably not. Ask yourself if this item is worth channeling funds into its preservation. If this item was the only thing in your storage space, would it be worth the upkeep of temperature and humidity control? Is it worth the cost of the acid-free containers and bags it is kept in?
Unprovenanced items. These items might be better served in an education or teaching collection. They offer very little in the way of valuable research, but would be much more helpful for use in lessons. Have you tried writing exhibit labels for these items? It’s not easy. This is a chair probably from the 1950s. Does it serve your audience by teaching them something about their history? If not, it belongs somewhere else.
Items that don’t fit into your museum’s mission. Ours is: Telling the story of the Ocoee Region. This means non-local items, which might be cool, do not belong here.
Impactful vs. Immersive Exhibit Space
Minimalist exhibits are impactful. They highlight one or few artifacts, allowing the viewer to marvel at and examine this item. This item draws the viewer in, begging to be scrutinized. Minimalist exhibit spaces are to feature your crown jewel(s). They are inevitably what people will be drawn to. Don’t hide your best items amongst clutter, especially if they’re small. They will be drowned out by quantity.
Cluttered exhibits have their place as well. Cluttered spaces are immersive. They give the viewer a sense of place. They see the antique bed, the end table overflowing with artifacts, the items all clamoring for attention. It gives the viewer an overall picture rather than an opportunity to examine detail. Those items that only need a cursory view should be amongst other items of similar ilk. There are many items in our collections that are better to be seen as part of a whole, not examined.
As museums begin to learn that more is not always better, that more means drowning out invaluable artifacts (or worse: rejecting invaluable artifacts), we need to be more aware of clutter. We need to embrace some of the tenets of minimalism to better serve the public. Rejecting or deaccessioning single items might not serve the individual donor, but it serves the community as a whole. Displaying a singular item as a focal point might not serve the boxes of artifacts we have in storage, but it better serves the community by highlighting an important aspect of history. And, as Spock said, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”