Keynote Abstract

How a Museum Object ‘Remembers its Facts’: Evidence, Representation and Curation in the Continuum

Keynote speaker: Costis Dallas

Can things talk? What is the meaning of an artwork? What can we learn from an archaeological artefact? Are museums about objects, or about stories? Are museum holdings evidence for of past cultures and the outside world, or primarily instruments for contemporary memory work, education, and entertainment? In an era marked by the effects of globalization and dizitalization, by the rise of the experience economy, and by increased pressure on cultural institutions to demonstrate social relevance, such questions become critical for contemporary museums.

The authority of museums was established originally on their ability to act as trustworthy guardians of their collections, deemed in turn to be reliable and important records of human cultures, the natural world, and scientific knowledge. Documentation and study of collections in the light of scholarship and science was, and in many ways, remains central to the contemporary museum enterprise: one might, still, consider the museum information lifecycle as a process of transformation of primary object information into a fixed body of scholarly knowledge and internally consistent authoritative museum documentation, which is then transformed further into exhibitions, educational programming, and public communication. But this “waterfall” model is challenged by acknowledging the cultural bias and historical situatedness of museum catalogues, the multivocality and interdependence between facts stored in museum information systems, the diversity in modes of argumentation summoned to produce object knowledge, and other complexities. The challenge to the “unassailable voice” of the museum by indigenous and decolonial voices, amateur and citizen science, community and participatory heritage practices, is now fuelled by the proliferation of networked communication and social media technologies in the digital continuum. And thus, new actors, processes, and manifestations of curating object knowledge emerge, calling for a reconsideration of how we represent and curate museum holdings in the museum catalogue, and beyond.

The museum documentation community has been conscious of this challenge. The adoption of agency-oriented, event-centric approaches to representation (e.g., in CIDOC CRM), the focus on documenting processual, performative and contextual dimensions of object creation and use (e.g., in, documenting Variable Media Art), and the attempt to give voice to indigenous and local knowledge (e.g., by Reciprocal Research Network, or in the Mukurtu system), are testimony to this. Further evidence is lent by recent research on modelling scholarly activity and research methods in the humanities, on the formal representation of documenting scientific observation, on representing different degrees of belief, as well as the broader topic of the provenance of knowledge in museum documentation. Drawing from considerations of record, evidence, and warrant from information and archival science, from epistemological approaches to archaeological description and argumentation, and from conceptions of objecthood in new museology, the anthropology of art, and science studies, this talk seeks to call attention to the representation and curation of object knowledge as it is manifested not only in professional museum practice, but also in subaltern, indigenous, community, art-based, and other non-custodial memory and identity practices in the digital continuum.