Continuing on the topic of history-themed contemporary art, on Sunday I checked out a project called Encounters at the Helsinki City Museum’s main building on Sofianinkatu. For this project, the museum hosted a group of students from Aalto University who are taking a class called Museums as Artistic Medium. It’s taught by the artist Outi Turpeinen, whose work often centers on issues of museum display. The students created artistic interventions that were sprinkled throughout the city museum’s galleries, in and around the permanent exhibition Helsinki Horizons, during the month of May.
Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of the students’ work—I forgot my camera that day and now the show has closed. But I want to tell you about one piece that got me thinking. This particular student had gone out across Helsinki, in different neighborhoods, and knocked on doors at random. If someone answered she would ask for an object to be donated to her display at the museum. About 20 of these objects were then exhibited as part of Encounters. Accompanying text listed the neighborhood and a few sentences about the donor, the meaning of the object, and why it was chosen. Objects ranged from a broken cell phone, to old cut nails found during renovation work, to a custom shot glass made by the owner’s husband (he had worked in the Arabia factory). From the text you could tell that these folks probably felt a little put on the spot—some of them chose the first thing they could get their hands on, or pieces that clearly held little value for them (a bottle of cologne bought for a husband who turned out to be allergic to it, for example). But others were thoughtful about their choice and told stories of personal significance.
Which got me thinking. Lots of museums have started community collecting initiatives, putting calls out to residents to donate artifacts that fill gaps in the existing collection. And there have also been intensive neighborhood documentation efforts. Helsinki City Museum, for example, has initiated several projects to document specific areas of the city—in the 1970s the Pasila neighborhood and also Vaasankatu and Museokatu Streets, and then more recently Myllypuro. These HCM projects focused on architectural and photo documentation as well as interviews. Some artifacts were acquired too, on a lesser scale.
But has anyone ever tried to take a material culture census, so to speak? Door-to-door collecting, literally an object for every household? Not that I know of. And would it work?
These days museums try to be very selective with the artifacts they acquire. Once you formally take something into the collection you have to care for it forever. Although photographs and oral histories have their own preservation needs, three-dimensional artifacts are a particularly heavy drain on resources. And there’s also a valid argument that not everything is worth preserving—some objects just don’t stand the test of time. Therefore museums are very careful to retain their right to turn down a donation. Plus, working with so many individual families—to build up trust, to determine the most suitable object (you wouldn’t want them to choose on the spot as described above), to fully document each artifact—would be daunting. In fact I can hear curators all over Europe and North America sighing with exhaustion just from reading this.
But on the other hand, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we might make museums more inclusive. If it truly were every household, a material culture census would create a direct, 1 to 1 ratio between the city museum and the community it claims to represent. It might make a strong statement that every life has value; we are all part of history. Maybe it takes working that hard to put history at the center of community life. There’s also something special about doing it with objects—both their tangible nature and their symbolic meaning.
And to what end? Would it be worth all that work? Would it simply create a lot of white noise? I can envision some people deriving a profound satisfaction from the cultural acknowledgment of seeing their entire community in the museum, and the “everyone included” approach opening the door for a new kind of public history. I can envision a lot of people not caring. I can envision a really interesting conversation about the role of museums in 21st century society. I can envision wrangling over ownership and privacy rights. I can envision some powerful artifacts and stories that otherwise would never make it into the historical record. I can envision a lot of junk taking up space in museum warehouses. I can envision historians a hundred years from now being so thankful they have such a sweeping body of material to work with. I can envision it requiring a completely different skillset than what today’s curators are trained for. I want to try it anyway and see what happens.