in Museum 

"The changes that are occurring in decisions about collecting and the implications of those changes on collecting strategies and practices"

David Butts

At the beginning of my Fellowship I elected to talk to a small number of people in many locations within the Smithsonian and beyond. While this has given me a broader insight it has also meant that I do not have a detailed understanding of any particular component or issue. Hence my comments are, of necessity, very general. Although I was warned quite early in my time here to be careful about referring to the Smithsonian as one harmonious whole you will find that this romantic notion is one that lingers in my brain and may appear in one guise or another throughout this presentation.

Rather naively, I had not expected to find in the Smithsonian an organization so much like that of the university in which I work. The University consists of a central administration surrounded by a number of colleges. Within each college there are a number of schools and within each school there may be a number of academic programmes. A school may also have associated research programmes funded from external sources. Take for instance the School of Maori Studies, within which the Museum Studies programme is located, which has externally funded research programmes in the areas of Maori health, longitudinal studies of Maori families and the development of Maori language educational resources. There are obvious similarities with the Smithsonian organisational structure. Perhaps at the heart of some of the current issues at the Smithsonian is the question of whether one institution can be or should be both museum and university. This challenge is certainly a factor in explaining the presence of some tensions observable within the institution. There is no simple answer to this question when dealing with an institution with the history and contemporary complexity of the Smithsonian. The solution may not lie entirely within the Smithsonian, but in part at least, with the further exploration of innovative partnerships and accommodations with other institutions both in the United States and beyond.

In the twelve years I have been at the University it has been seeking increasingly to reposition itself in relation to the economic environment of the new right in which it must operate. In particular this has resulted in declining public funding for all our public universities and an increasing demand for transparency and accountability. In an increasingly competitive environment my university has opened campuses in two other cities and there has been some discussion of offshore initiatives. Perhaps we too could set up offices in Venetian Hotel. To continue the parallel just a little further, I can also report that this week my colleagues have been asked to cut all courses that do not attract more than X number of students. It is not only museums that are being measured by the number of people coming through the door. Moreover, the students who are enrolled are asked to assess the performance of the faculty. This is almost as outrageous as asking museum visitors to give a museum exhibition a pass/fail mark. How could they possibly know enough to make such a judgement? What would the consequences be if an exhibition failed? Would the curators and exhibitions staff be sacked or forced to attend compulsory retraining? Or would the museum director and programme managers be held responsible?

Discussions with Smithsonian staff have confirmed another parallel in the way museums and universities evolve. The range of programmes in a University College is often extended by the energy and enthusiasm of one or two people who have a passion for developing new courses that extend the boundaries of a discipline or that formalize interdisciplinary areas of research and teaching. It would appear that museum collecting areas are also able evolve in this way in large institutions in particular, although I know this also happens in smaller museums, especially when curators change. Curators or Museum Specialists develop a passion for some area of collecting and eventually they are able to formalize this extension to the range of material being collected by the department. Also important are those parts of collections that expand in significance to the point where they become the basis for another museum. This is much the same as a Planning Department emerging from Geography or Women’s Studies emerging from a whole range of traditional disciplines. This is an important process in the university as it is in an institution such as the Smithsonian. However, as with any community there is a point beyond which the resources will not stretch to accommodate new members and serious questions have to be asked. However, when the community decides to build a new house there may be a need to reorder existing priorities. When this happens it creates uncertainty and resentment. But it also creates opportunities for new partnerships and new visions. Managing these two realities is truly a test of the maturity of any institution.

I will resist the temptation to comment any further on the state of the Smithsonian in more general terms because I am reminded of the comments that a much loved and respected Maori colleague made to me some years ago. I was talking to her about the wonderful experience I had had working with Ngati Kahungunu (a Maori tribe, or coalition of tribes, on the east coast of the North island) facilitating a new exhibition of tribal treasures at the Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery, in Napier. I was telling her about the opportunities I had had to work with elders and to travel with them throughout the tribal territory, visiting marae and other places of cultural and historic importance to each community. As we traveled we talked about the history of each place, and I had the opportunity to meet many people with whom I would not normally have come into contact. My colleague listened to all I had to say and then she observed that what these people had done was to lift the corner of their cloak and allowed me to look briefly underneath. But she cautioned me, ‘do not get carried away with what you think you now know about Ngati Kahungunu, do not assume that because you have been allowed this privilege you are now an authority on Ngati Kahungunu’. Today I am only too aware that after two months at the Smithsonian I have only scratched the surface and that my knowledge of the workings of the Smithsonian, as a whole, or even individual institutions within, it is entirely superficial. Having said that I am sure you would understand if I was to spend the rest of my time today showing slides of New Zealand museums and collections. But life is not that simple and so I should make a few observations about Collecting Policy and Practice, the topic that has been the focus of my discussions with museum staff.

First let me say that the one of the things that really appealed to me about the Fellowship in Museum Practice was the opportunity it offered to commune with museum professionals in a major institution. I wanted to have the opportunity to sit and listen to people reflect on their professional practice and the way it is changing. During the last two months I have only encountered one person who said that they were two busy to talk to me. Had I not been a Fellow within the institution I may not have had the same level of access and cooperation. I have spoken to people in the Office of Policy and Analysis, the National Collections Office, the Affiliations Office, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of the American Indian, Anacostia Museum and the Center for African American History and Culture, and with my colleagues in the Center for Education and Museum Studies. In particular, my interview with Stephen Weil, Senior Emeritus Scholar in the Center for Museum Studies, was a timely reminder that there is more than one way to read the Smithsonian.

When I arrived I thought it would be great if people would talk to me for an hour. Most of my conversations with people have lasted much longer than that. Beyond that people have invited me to observe and even participate in meetings being held to discuss collecting and collection-related issues. It was indeed a privilege to be able to sit and listen to people discussing and debating issues as part of their normal work routine. I sat in on meetings to discuss feedback on the questionnaire about collections being prepared by the Office of Policy and Analysis. At the Museum of American History I was able to sit in on a meeting of the Collections Committee and a Collections Colloquium. Each of these meetings gave me the opportunity to listen to very knowledgeable staff elucidate and debate issues and provided additional insight into the issues that are the focus of my study. Last week I attended the ALI-ABA conference here in Washington. One of the lawyers lamented that some of the bad decisions that have been made in her institution have been made because there is not always a process that provides quality information and encourages robust debate of the issues. Perhaps this is more generally the case in museums than we would care to admit. However, my observation of the process employed by the Office of Policy and Analysis in the development of the Collections Project Questionnaire was that they encouraged collections management staff in the institutions to bring to bear their most critical observations. It was encouraging to hear them observe that they had learned a tremendous amount from that process and that their understanding of the issues had increased as a result of the constructive participation of a wide range of museum staff in the shaping of the questionnaire they have finally distributed to the institutions. It seemed to me that the goodwill demonstrated by all the participants in that process was a testament to their professionalism given some of the assumptions abroad about the agenda driving the initiative. Of course a cynic might observe that I saw only the professional ceremonies of encounter required when business is done in the full light of public scrutiny. Such an observation would be a disservice to the participants.

The remainder of my presentation will summarize very briefly some of the insights and issues that have been shared with me by the people to whom I have spoken at the Smithsonian.

My intention when I arrived at the Smithsonian was to ask a small selection of people with responsibility for collecting in the cultural history museums about the ways in which their collecting strategies had changed over the last decade. After some initial discussions with staff in the Center for Museum Studies, I realized that it would be useful to expand my net to include the National Collections Program and the Office of Policy and Analysis Collections Study. I later became more conscious of the Performance Measures Project initiated by the Planning Office, but have not had time to speak to project staff. I have seen a set of informal focus group notes on the web but these do not assist one’s understanding of the project or the purpose of the focus groups.

The National Collections Program, located in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, promotes institutional accountability for the national collections through the development of collections management standards in policy and practice and through information exchange. Within the last two weeks the Program has submitted a final draft of a revision of Smithsonian Directive (SD) 600: Collections Management Policy to the Secretary which replaces OM 808m 1992. The Policy will be accompanied by the SD600 Implementation Manual. This policy implements the Smithsonian Institution Collection Management Guidelines approved by the Board of Regents and issued by the Secretary in 1999 and codifies the mandate to create and maintain collections given in the establishing legislation of each museum. SD 600 will also draw within its ambit a number of Research and other Units that have developed collections in the absence of such a legislative mandate, for example the Folklife Programme. A fundamental issue arises in this context. To what extent is the central administration of the Smithsonian responsible for the collecting activity of the individual collecting units? The answer, apparently, is that there is no one answer that fits all. Those museums whose legislation has created boards with responsibilities for developing collections have more autonomy in these matters than others whose legislation leaves these responsibilities to the Smithsonian Regents. But the Secretary can still have considerable influence because of his control of personnel and resources.

SD 600 notes that acquisition is ‘fundamental and critical to the vitality of the Smithsonian’ and thus by implication to each of the collection units. Any attempt on the part of the central administration of the institution to constrain collecting activity for economic reasons will have to be applied in a way that is consistent with this fundamental principle of SD 600. Considerable advantage may be derived from its further articulation and debate.

Fundamental to the strategic planning of collection development is the Collection Plan. SD 600 does not mention Collection Plans explicitly though such planning documents are implied in the delegated responsibilities of Collecting Unit Directors and the section on acquisition principles. The intent of SD 600 may be strengthened by being more explicit not only on the requirement to create Collection Plans but also by stipulating the period of review. It is apparent from the set of collection plans deposited with the National Collections Programme that some museums have reviewed and rewritten their collection plans very recently while others have not revised their plans since the early 1990s. Some institutions have not submitted a plan even though they are required to do so by OM 808. It would appear that for many people involved in collecting the Collection Plans have been created and absorbed into practice some time ago. The question remains as to whether these are living policy documents. How often should Collecting Plans be formally revised? How effectively do collection committees ensure that acquisition proposals comply with collection plan priorities? Some of the examples I have seen are certainly instructive and I am sure their format will be of interest to colleagues in New Zealand.

The Collections Study being undertaken by the Office of policy and Analysis is designed to provide information, conclusions and policy recommendations that will improve the content and use of Smithsonian collections, rationalize the use of storage space, and reduce the costs of collections development and management. The collection of information to facilitate a dialogue on these issues is timely and may well go some way to dispel misconceptions and illuminate the difficult circumstances under which some collecting units have been operating over the last decade and more. In arriving at recommendations the office will need to be cognizant of the centrality of planned collection development to the continuing life of the institutions and balance these honestly against immediate economic realities. In the end is it better for the central administration or the institutions to make the hard decisions about resource allocation? Where there can be cooperative initiatives between collection units it may well be the central administration’s responsibility to facilitate these processes.

As I have noted above, collections management staff and the staff of the Office of Policy and Planning have been working hard to infuse the data collection phase with an awareness of the larger museological and policy issues that should be addressed by the project. There would appear to be considerable merit in facilitating optimum synergy between the Collections Study, the Performance Measures Project and the role of the National Collections Programme. One can only imagine that the outcome of this work will have significant implications for the future configuration and functions of the National Collections Programme.

I wish now to consider the museums and their collecting practice. First, I want to use the annual acquisition data from two institutions to outline the trend in acquisitions over the last decade at the National Museum of American History and the Anthropology Department of the National Museum of Natural History.


One thing I had not realized before I came to the Smithsonian was the complexity of an institution like the National Museum of American History. The time frame for my Fellowship allowed me to talk to only a few individuals and even these conversations were conducted at a very general level. Having seen that the number of acquisitions has fallen dramatically during the last decade I have been interested to learn why museum staff think this has happened. A number of explanations have been offered. During the late 1970s there was an increased awareness of the cost of maintaining collections and this, combined with the increasing pressure on storage space from the mid 1980s is seen by most as an important part of the explanation. It has also been suggested that the appointment of the first Director with a background in social history made a significant difference in collection strategies. The changing focus of many historians employed by the museum has meant that many curators do not now use the collections as the starting point for their research. Without doubt the establishment of the Collection Committee has meant that acquisitions are very carefully scrutinized within Divisions before they are submitted. This explains the very small number of proposals declined by the committee.

I was fortunate to be able to talk to Steve Lubar and Kathy Kendrick who have collaborated on a soon to be released book called Legacies: Collecting America’s History at the Smithsonian. At the Smithsonian the notion of representing the history of the nation has evolved from the stories of great white men through the representation of common folk to the representation of the cultural diversity. While there are some collecting areas that remain essentially systematic and typological, there have been fundamental changes in collecting strategies in many areas of the collection. Within the NMAH and more specifically the History of Technology Division, Steve and Kathy outlined a progression from the history of technology to the place of technology in the lives of Americans. There is a focus on collecting both the innovative and the common place. Whereas in the past a curator might have tried to acquire an object straight from the factory floor, now there is a preference for items that have had a life beyond the factory. This change in collection strategy reflects the curators’ interest in social as much as technological history. The logistics of collecting have changed with the desire to acquire objects with richly layered histories. It takes more time to locate suitable objects, collect associated materials and to record the history in detail. It also reflects the type of exhibitions and public programmes the museum wants to develop. However, there are some areas of collecting that the museum still finds contentious. While collecting does include the material culture of drugs and rock and roll, apparently there is a reluctance to embrace certain aspects of sex, violence and crime. Although for every rule there are exceptions. The History of Technology Division has collected a door badly burned in a chicken factory fire that resulted in the deaths of some of the workers trapped inside. Such an item is a graphic reminder of the dangerous conditions still to be found in some work places.

During my discussion at the Museum of American History I was referred to a number of other people who are engaged in innovative collecting projects. Unfortunately, I have not had time to document these projects.

At the National Museum Natural History (Anthropology Department) I had the very considerable pleasure of talking to Adrienne Kaeppler. Every year I draw the attention of my students to the her publication ‘Natural Curiosities’ that provides a record of the Maori material collected on Captain James Cook’s visits to New Zealand and subsequently distributed around the world. This type of systematic ethnological research provides an invaluable record for those New Zealanders and other people in the pacific who are unable to visit the museums in Europe and North America that now hold most of this material. Adrienne generously took me to the view the collection of taonga Maori in storage.

Even from my limited contact with the Anthropology Department at NMNH it is apparent that due to lack of funding active collecting has been at a minimal level for the last decade. Adrienne Kaeppler outlined for me the difficulties she faces should she want to continue to develop the Pacific collections through an active programme of acquisition. Most pacific countries now have laws prohibiting the export of significant cultural treasures and nor would she want to remove any of the remaining material from the Pacific even if she could Thus, the only available source for older material would be the auction market in Europe and North America and this is not possible because of the lack of acquisition funds. An option that would be less expensive but is still not possible because of lack of funding would be the collection of contemporary material to maintain the continuity of the collections. However, this may not be entirely problematic for those curators whose research interests are not focused on collections or the need to expand the existing collections. I am sure that there are areas of the Anthropology collections that are being developed in a more active way but I have not had the opportunity to meet with the curator of such an area. Finally one cannot leave the NMNH (Anthropology Department) without mentioning the actual and potential impact of NAGPRA and the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian. A significant number of human remains have been returned though that process has slowed since the mid 1990s. I have not had time to discuss the longer-term implications of the legislation for the ethnology collections. Beyond this, there is speculation about the long-term disposition of the American Indian collections in NMNH and whether they will eventually be amalgamated with the collections of the NMAI. There is also speculation about the future of the Anthropology Department within the National Museum of Natural History. The apparently once popular notion of a Museum of Mankind seems a distant possibility. The resolution of these issues will have important implications for the way in which these collections are developed in the future.

At last I come to my final comments.

Respect, inclusion and reciprocity and maintenance are three principles that have consistently emerged from my discussions with staff from the National Museum of the American Indian, Anacostia and the Center for African American History and Culture and the Asian and Pacific American Programme. These three inter-related principles are fundamental in the context of collecting. Staff I have spoken to in these programmes and others acknowledge the rights of individuals, families and comunities to determine how their cultural heritage will be maintained. I remember when I began to work in the School of Maori Studies, Professor Durie took me aside and said ‘you might consider usung the term heritage maintenance rather than heritage preservation.’ He wanted to see this heritage issues articulated a key element in Maori development, but in order for that to happen the objective had to be to retian these treasures as part of the living cultue not removing them from the normal life cycle of the people. I have heard this same philosophy articulated by people here at the Smithsonian. This could have a radical effect on collection development strategies. And this is where the principles of inclusion and reciprocity become important. Collection development strategies will emerge from working closely with the communities to determine what role they want the museum to take. Reciprocity will ensure that the museum will give back to the community as much as it receives. It seems to me that these four principles, respect, inclusion, reciprocity and maintenance, provide a useful set of standards against which to measure the collecting strategies of these programmes. If the Smithsonian wants performance measures that reflect its mission, as we would interpret it in the 21st Century, then it is incumbent on this community of scholars to articulate forcefully the fundamental principles that provide the foundation.


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