One perspective to consider is the changing character of collections in an age of digital reproduction and cultural globalization and access. There was a time when possession of authentic collections was a source of institutional status and regional pride. Each City needed its Picassos, Dinosaurs, or Greek urns in order to be a considered a sophisticated, mature, and contemporary urban destination. Is the power of possession now being superseded by the power of access? Are communities less interested in owning their Picasso and more interested in having access to the best Picassos for a temporary period. Researchers, too, are increasingly attracted by the convenience of a HD images and searchable data bases of collections and archival records, not needing to make the trip to see the originals. Often these digital files can reveal information that the naked eye is incapable of detecting. Once digitized, virtual collections can be manipulated in ways the actual object cannot. The question then arises, how many Audubon mammals portfolios are required to be in the public domain once they are digitized and accessible? What if a natural history museum was given such a portfolio at a time when it was considered natural historical documentation as opposed to art? Should the natural history museum continue to hold the item when duplicates exist in the neighboring art museum? Should the two museums collaborate, produce an in-depth digital file for one portfolio and keep one “auratic” regional original for researchers? Rather than focusing on the ethical extremes of corruption and greed, should we be focused on more positive discussions of institutional collaborations, loans, centralized repositories, and alternate access and preservation of cultural and natural heritage, rather than stubborn defense of the status quo? Should we be having a rich discussion of how the presence of the virtual object affects the status of the actual object?

There it was, confronting me in the shower of the Crown Plaza Hotel in New Orleans like a hanging accusation; a door-hook sign asking me to volunteer to use the same towels throughout my stay to save the environment from certain ruin. As I pondered my choices, I realized that no matter what the scale of environmental issue, the choices are always the same. I could ignore the signs, pretend I did not see them, and no one would be the wiser. Or I could deny the signs and cynically forge some dense justification; that it was just a ploy of the hotel to save them money by appealing to my fear and guilt. Or I could believe in the authenticity of the appeal, make this small sacrifice, and convince myself that I was doing my part to create a sustainable future. So, what to do about these towels, or global warming, or species and habitat loss, or coral reefs, tuna, or whatever. I made peace with my moist companion for the next four days and hung the sign on my door certain I had saved something for someone. Probably, mostly me.

Museums are ritual places in which societies make visible what they value. Through the selection and preservation of artifacts, specimens, and documents, museums begin to define for their societies what is consequential, valuable, and suitable as evidence of the past. Through their presentation and interpretation of this evidence, museums define not only what I memorable but also how it is to be remembered. Museum are thus unavoidably linked with their cultural settings. They are a collective self-reflection culminating in the maintenance, sustenance, and presentation of a cultural identity, as well as the embodiment of cultural values and attitudes believed to be important. (more…)

Winter Afternoons in the V & A, pre WWII

Denise Levertov

“…My shoes made no sound, I found
Everything for myself,
Everything in profusion…

Here was history
As I desired it: magical, specific,
Jumbled, unstinting,
A world for the mind to sift
In its hourglass—now, while I was twelve
Or forever.”

The poet, Denise Levertov, was a frequent visitor to the Victoria & Albert museum throughout her life, always discovering the tangible and sensual connection to history through that Museum’s objects of desire. (more…)