An object is just an object until we decide it’s something more, right?
Museums make decisions about objects and their perceived value(s) constantly. In fact, we all do – it’s human nature. From grandchildren cleaning out attics, to amateur archeologists, to lifetime collectors – we sort, select and exhibit objects according to value.
What do museum people mean when we talk about “value”? It depends on how stringent your institution’s collections policy is (by the way – when was the last time that was updated?) but, generally speaking, an object’s value is determined by function, aesthetic, cultural, symbolic or scientific, etc., importance according to our human understanding and professional lenses. We are all researchers, interpreters and distinguish-ers (is that a word?) of the world.
Dr. Kiersten Latham, spoke about this topic at this year’s Ohio Museums Association conference, in the context of her research on “museality,” which is by definition when an ordinary object transcends its functional reality and becomes a document for some larger context it represents. For example, when is a hat more than a hat? When that hat belonged to Abraham Lincoln.
Abe is pretty darn important, therefore, this particular hat has a set of values placed on it by association with the man and all of the cultural context that comes with him.
I was reminded of all of this when I stumbled across the Adidas ‘shackle’ controversy story that has been in the news recently. As this controversy suggests, object study, collection and interpretation is not always as simple as Abe’s hat. These high-top sneakers, the JS Roundhouse Mids, have become quite the polarizing topic.
The designer, Jeremy Scott, released a statement that the shoes were inspired by My Pet Monster and initially Adidas stood by their designer stating that, “any suggestion that this is linked to slavery is untruthful.” Adidas has since pulled the JS Roundhouse Mids from its line.
The dialogue regarding this pair of sneakers is far from over, and no, I’m not going to ask you where you fall on the spectrum of the design.
However, I am interested in the wide range of interpretation surrounding these sneakers and what it can tell us about the impact of our own professional work with objects.
Imagine, for a moment, the JS Roundhouse Mids were accessioned into your collection. What is their “value” for you or your institution? How would you interpret them? Where would the research you did begin or end?
As importantly, how will the value of these objects be different in 1, 5, 10, or 50 years? For example, the contemporary value that we place on a toy we are nostolgic about from our youth is far different than the value we placed on the toy when we were playing with at 7 years old. This isn’t exactly how “value” is defined/redefined in a museum collections environment, but I think you get the point. Object value and interpretation change with time.
Food for thought on this controversial, contemporary conversation.