Do museums still need objects?
by Steven Conn, University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania, 2009
ISBN 978 0 8122 4190 7 (hbk), RRP A$44.00
review by Andrea Witcomb
Do museums still need objects?
Steven Conn's new book, Do Museums Still Need Objects? is many things: an attempt to jolt us into assessing our move away from objects towards narrative and immersive techniques of interpretation; a continuation of his explorations of the relationships between museums, collections and the history of disciplines; and a call for a renewed and reinvigorated understanding of the role of museums in contemporary society.

Conn begins by noting that while we are living through a second golden age of museum building in which museums have never been as popular with audiences, we are also seeing intense debate and critique of museums and their practices. Much of this, he argues, might be due to the ways in which objects have come to matter less and less. There is, he suggests, a strong instability at the heart of contemporary museological activity due to the collapse of the epistemological relations that informed the development of new disciplines and the collection of objects in the nineteenth century. As he puts it, anthropology, science, art and history all had a strong base in the collection and analysis of objects. Art history apart, that is no longer the case. What then, is the intellectual raison d'être for museums now? And what role, if any, do objects play in them? And if objects no longer play a central role, should this be cause for worry?

Rather than a sustained argument, the book is a collection of essays that revolve around an examination of two central questions: What has become of objects in museum displays since their original development in the nineteenth century? And what do the answers to this first question tell us about the place of museums in the history of ideas linking objects, ideas and public space? The analysis is driven by a historical rather than a theoretical or analytical mode of inquiry and focuses on explaining how we got to the current situation, rather than analysing the latter in detail. This means that there is little in the way of an attempt to rethink what our contemporary relationship to the material world might be. As Haidy Geismar (2010) put it in her review of the book, 'Little attention is paid to the generation of new kinds of collection and the presence of new kinds of object in museums — the reference point for a museum object is, following Conn's area of expertise, the collections of the 19th century and their legacy in the present'.[1] This is a pity in that the answer to the question posed in the book's title appears to be a resounding 'No', with a sense of loss, rather than a more open engagement with what is actually happening now. Consequently, there is no sense of the ways in which museums might be re-imagining their engagement with materiality despite the fact that objects have indeed disappeared from museum displays.

The chapters are organised around different genres of museums and their relationship to the history of specific disciplines — art museums, history, science, anthropology and commercial museums — and the implications of changes in these relations for the status of objects within the relevant museum. With the exception of art museums, this historical excavation uncovers the ways in which, as research methodologies in the humanities and social sciences have moved from a basis in material culture to more abstract forms of inquiry, and in the sciences from collections of specimens to the laboratory and experimental science, museums have become intellectual backwaters in terms of the development of the disciplines that once informed their collecting activity. The consequence, Conn argues, is the receding importance of objects as a means of discovering and communicating knowledge. In one case, that of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, the divorce between the collection and the discipline that first informed its development is so great that the museum simply becomes irrelevant and eventually closes down. The survival of science museums is predicated on a radical change of audience and interpretative techniques — from adults to children, from objects to interactives. This shift from collections to education, Conn argues, is also manifest in history museums, in this case in the exchange of narrative for objects. There are also chapters on the movement of objects out of museums (repatriation) as well as across disciplines (from anthropology to art in the case of Asian art objects). The book closes with a final chapter on the relations between museums and public sphere, arguing that museums have always responded to shifts in public taste and expectations by changing their architecture, exhibition practices and ways of presenting objects. Museums, Conn argues, have never been the monolithic hegemonic and elitist institutions critical theorists have made them out to be.

For me, Conn's most provocative questions emerge from his analysis of history museums and his chapter on the politics of repatriation. In tracing the way in which history museums have become more and more concerned with narrative largely in response to the rise of the politics of identity, Conn argues that history museums have elided the difference between history and heritage, making for a celebratory rather than a critically informed engagement with the past. While he is writing from within and about an American context, in which issues of cultural diversity have been addressed not only from a desire to be socially inclusive but also from a strategy of individual representation that has seen the proliferation of ethnically specific museums and an emptying out of cultural diversity in mainstream institutions, his concerns are also relevant here. The problem is twofold and is one many of us are concerned about. On the one hand, the concern to be inclusive and to empower particular groups of people has led to an interpretation strategy in which narrative overpowers objects and which is remarkably the same regardless of group and context. As Conn puts it, 'it is generally an uncomplicated story of adversity, struggle and triumph', in which the focus is on culture rather than history, with a consequent lack of critical distance. In other words, those narratives are always celebratory and leave out politics. The other problem boils down to this: 'If, in the end, I have my culture and you have yours, and if knowledge of that culture resides in some biological construct of ethnicity or race, it is hard to imagine an institution that could engage us both'. There is no space either for dialogue across differences or indeed for the imagining of shared histories. It is perhaps telling that the replacement gallery for the former Horizons gallery at the National Museum of Australia is explicitly set up as a return to using objects rather than narrative as the basis for the exhibition. Australian Journeys was developed in part to address a concern to find ways to use objects to tell cross-cultural histories as well as to promote the audience's engagement with the objects themselves rather than with an overlying narrative. As the new exhibition's curators, Kirsten Wehner and Martha Sears (2010) argue, the tendency to use objects as illustrations of themes stopped an engagement with their materiality and thus to the development of what they call an 'object knowledge'.[2]

The chapter on repatriation is similarly provocative and critiques the association made by NAGPRA (the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act unit) between biology and culture, despite the need and desire to recognise indigenous people's rights in relation to their cultural material. As Conn points out, this alliance, expressed either through geography or genealogy, relies on an understanding of culture that is devoid of history, coming dangerously close in his view to racial essentialism and even religious fundamentalism. In respect of the latter, Conn mounts a persuasive argument to show how the arguments for repatriation emerge not from the margins and from attempts at resistance but instead fit squarely within mainstream American culture. In these arguments Conn displays a knack for making us feel uncomfortable about practices which we have believed to be inherently 'good' in their orientation and effect.

As always, Conn communicates his ideas and insights through a light but knowledgeable sketch of the intellectual history of the field, possessing a wonderful facility with words that makes one smile in appreciation. This is an enjoyable read that manages to combine humour with a serious account of changes to the ways in which a wide variety of museums in the United States have used objects over time, providing museum practitioners and scholars with a list of questions we would do well to reflect on. One of those, which is not answered in the book, is what a new 'object knowledge' might look like and whether there are any signs that such a development might be taking place. Perhaps that is a task not for a historian but for a cultural critic and, indeed, for reflective curators themselves.
Andrea Witcomb is an associate professor at the Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific at Deakin University, Melbourne.

1 Haidy Geismar, review of Do Museums Still Need Objects? in Material World Book Reviews Archive,, 4 March 2010, accessed 21 September 2010.
2 K Wehner & M Sear, 'Engaging the material world: Object knowledge and Australian Journeys', in S Dudley (ed.), Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations, Routledge, London/New York, pp. 143–61.