The conversation

Jan Freedman; Mark Carnall, Issue 114/11, p16, 01.11.2014
Should we tell the public the financial value of museum objects?
Jan Freedman is the curator of natural history at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery; Mark Carnall is a curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in London

Dear Mark:

Of course we should not. I was helping with an event at a museum a few years ago, and heard a member of staff tell volunteers not to put drinks on the table because there was a painting worth £X hundreds of thousands behind them.

But there were lots of natural history specimens on the table. Apart from the security issues, the employee was placing greater importance on the painting than on other collections. All museum collections should be treated with the same respect and “value”.

Best wishes, Jan

Dear Jan:

Curators are a cautious bunch and the worry is that quantifying collections financially instantly leads to councils and governing bodies flogging them off – particularly underused ones. However, we are all aware of museums that dump or give away important collections, and in many cases, they don’t go through proper process because it is “unaccessioned material” or material leaving non-museum collections.

A financial value of objects would cause non-museum people to hopefully follow due process. In natural history, the tenet of irreplaceable yet valueless specimens just isn’t working any more, particularly in mixed collections that happily promote high-value acquisitions.

Best wishes, Mark

Dear Mark:

It is a sad truth that collections have been sold to assist in budgets gaps. Museums hold objects in trust for the people; they are not ours to sell. There are correct procedures for disposals, but those at the top may not necessarily be aware.

Once collections are sold, they (and their stories) are gone for ever. Giving an object a financial value also automatically increases its importance over those worth less. There must be another way of showing objects’ true value.

Best wishes, Jan

Dear Jan:

Financial value is more than a price tag and there are so many added advantages to openly dealing with value. Export bars, treasure trove, patronage, acceptance in lieu and acquisition budgets all have problems but could not exist without openness about financial value.

Talking about financial value can also bring communities of interest together. The art world is comprised of artists, dealers, collectors and curators, and objects move between them more readily with financial value of objects. In our discipline, collectors and dealers are often demonised and excluded. I think the two are related.

Best wishes, Mark

Dear Mark:

Perhaps the financial value is causing the divide? There are lots of grants available for buying art but none for buying natural history. What if the value of all museum objects was based on how the public valued them? It can be measured easily by a simple formula: Value = Smiles + Awe + Interaction + Excitement. Some curators may think “Noooo”, but the point is that the value should always be high.

Curators know their objects and should be able to inspire others, so they all have the potential to be awesomely inspiring. We can all give our collections a value they deserve. A real value that is greater than money.

Best wishes, Jan

Dear Jan:

Sadly, financial value is the easiest but most misleading measurement of value. However, how would a value measure apply to the millions of stored objects that never see the light of day? How about specimens that don’t inspire, such as the 4,801st identical pot fragment or rabbit skull?

Associating value with use is problematic because we don’t use most of our collections from day to day or decade to decade. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. How we communicate that to the public is perhaps more important.

Best wishes, Mark


Comments

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Trevor Jones
Director of Museums, Kentucky Historical Society
24.11.2014, 21:15
Interesting conversation. I like the idea of basing the value of artifacts by how the public cares about them. Would that be fundamentally different than looking at your collection based on how it supports your mission? The idea that all museum objects have equal "value" (however you want to measure that) is untenable. Some objects better support our mission, and those are the ones we should most value. Think about creating a system that tiers the importance of your artifacts based on this idea. See: www.activecollections.org