Museums display objects to tell stories. What should they do when they don’t have the objects they need?

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“A Void,” a group exhibition curated by artist Paul Ramirez Jonas at 601 Artspace begins with black rectangles representing lost artworks. Photo by Stan Narten from

Museums display things: art, artifact, specimens. They do this, mostly, in the service of teaching facts, revealing ideas, or driving emotion or empathy. Things help museums tell stories.

But sometimes, we don’t have the things we need to tell the stories we want to tell. “No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams, but that’s not always true. Sometimes, there are no things for our ideas. . More precisely: Sometimes the objects we need to tell stories are lost, stolen, misplaced, unavailable, or just too hard to get and display. How to convey those ideas, tell those stories? …

What they were, why they disappeared, and why they’re so popular now

Cabinets of curiosity are back in fashion. These premodern museums (also known by their German name, wunderkammer) are, it seems, also post-modern museums. They were created before the rules that shape the modern museum came into play, and they seem to offer a way around those rules today.

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Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Peasant Lawyer, ca. 1620. Grohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

General writing advice

Don’t introduce too much. Get right to the topic. A paper is often better if you throw away the first line, or the first paragraph. When you’ve finished: decide if your conclusion, should really be the introduction.

Don’t try to get fancy with your writing. Write like you talk. Be direct.

Include your own story here. Use the first person. Allow your personality, and emotions, to come through.

Tell a story — walk your reader through the process, or through how you learned the process.

It’s good to occasionally step out of the details and make a comparison. What is similar? …

The landscape of memory in the United States includes many memorials to those killed in our wars. It includes many fewer to those killed in the course of their work. There are many monuments honoring those who fought, and a few to those who worked. There are very few monuments to those disabled in the course of their military service, or their work.

This paper asks a simple question: where are the monuments to those who were wounded or injured or disabled in the course of their career as soldier or worker? …

First, a cautionary tale: Prof. John Whipple Potter Jenks founded Brown University’s museum of natural history, ethnography and “curiosities” in 1876. Jenks was an enthusiastic collector (he acquired some 50,000 items by 1890) a fine teacher, and a diligent fund-raiser. When he died in 1893, his tombstone read: “This museum the fruit of his labor will be his abiding monument.” It was not to be. The museum closed soon after. In 1943, 82 truckloads of collections were taken to the university dump.

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The Jenks Museum at Brown University. Courtesy Brown University Archives

Was Jenks a good curator?

In the short term, yes: he was knowledgeable, dedicated to his museum, a great collector and brilliant at convincing others to donate their collections. He worked hard at putting things on display and was serious about teaching. …

[I was asked to offer a toast to open the 2018 Japan Society for the Promotion of Science forum on “Memory and the Museum.”]

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Mnemosyne. Greco-Roman Antioch mosaic, 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Courtesy Hatay Archeology Museum, Antakya

We are here to celebrate the beginning of a conference on museums and memory. And since we are mostly historians and anthropologists, it seems it might appropriate to start with some imaginative genealogy. In Greek mythology Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory and remembrance. She was the mother of the nine muses, the goddesses of song and poetry, the arts and sciences. And a museum was the place of the muses — a building dedicated to them, or to the arts inspired by them. …

Waterfire Arts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, is hosting Ryan Mendoza’s Rosa Parks House Project. It features Mrs. Parks’s brother’s house, from Detroit — the house she stayed in when she fled Montgomery, Alabama in August 1957, threatened and unable to find work after the bus boycott. The house, on Detroit’s demolition list, was purchased by Rhea McCauley, Mrs. Parks’s niece, in 2014. She hoped to turn it into a community center, but unable to restore it, gave it to artist Ryan Mendoza. He took it apart, moved it to his home in Berlin, and rebuilt it. …

In the Fall semester, I taught a new course, a seminar for first-year students: “Skills: From the Medieval Workshop to the Maker Movement.” It was historical and hands-on: I wanted students to understand skills by reading and writing as well as by doing. We read history, psychology, and anthropology; manifestos, manuals, and memoirs.

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The Brown Design Workshop

Cataloging History, Part 4

“Cataloging History” is a four-part series on the history and theory of museum and exhibition catalogs, focusing on the 1853 New York Crystal Palace. Part 1 considers the early history of this genre, tracking its roots to the catalog of the Museum Wormianum and the Louvre, and exploring the variety of uses to which early American museums put published descriptions of their collections and exhibitions. Part 2 looks in detail at the catalogs and guides published by and about the 1853 New York Crystal Palace. Part 3 considers the catalog as physical and digital object examining the affordances of each of these forms, what it encouraged and allowed. This final installment applies the tools of the digital humanities to explore the Crystal Palace catalogs as digital object. …

Moving Confederate memorials evicted from the public square to museums solves an immediate problem. It offers mayors and governors a way out of the corner that they find themselves in. But, for museums, it raises new questions. Should museums take them? What should they do with them? Would museums be seen as supporting the cause for which these memorials were erected? I believe that museums can work out creative ways to use these memorials.

In art museums, Confederate memorials would find good company among the many paintings and sculptures that lost their political and cultural meaning when they moved from the court, the church, or the public square to the museum. Art historian Svetlana Alpers argues that “the museum effect” turns all objects into works of art. The statue of a Roman emperor that once declared his power becomes an example of late Roman statuary. A religious icon is no longer worshipped. A Confederate general on a horse displayed in an exhibit on equestrian sculpture has acquired a new meaning that overpowers the original intent of those who created it. …


Steven Lubar

Professor of American Studies at Brown University. Author of Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.

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