The Preeminence of Provenance
“Preserve Your Memories, they’re all that’s left you” –Simon and Garfunkel, “Bookends,” 1968
Many of C2C’s instructional efforts focus on artifact preservation. We research and distribute guidance for storage techniques and materials that can prevent, or at least stall, the ravages of time on the treasures in our institutional collections. The records of those artifacts, however, are at least equally important.
A traditional Jewish custom is to place small stones on graves, each representing a memory. There is comfort in the idea that the dead continue to exist in the minds and hearts of the living. Stone persists and memory transcends beyond the temporary existence of a body.
Most museum artifacts also persist beyond the lives of those who created and used them. Museums must tell the stories, and convey the transcendent memories, that have meaning for their current communities. When we are fortunate, institutional records include historical information on individual objects. In other cases, investigations can unlock secrets that become an important part of an artifact’s provenance.
During a recent discussion about a Civil-War-era work dress with Paige Myers, Textile Conservator at the NC Museum of History, new information revealed itself. While pointing out signs of wear around the pockets, Paige felt inside and discovered several seeds. These suggest stories of the wearer’s work, what she planted, and what resources were important to her family’s livelihood.
Most museums now keep databases of artifact records. Off-site back-ups of these are critical to retain the data in the event of on-site technical problems. In most cases, however, the hard copy of an object file is still important. These can include an object history form that the original donor (or curator at the time of the donation) completed. Any research, published or not, relating to the artifact also belongs in the file. The stories museum artifacts (and records) can tell constitute the connecting link between collections and the communities they exist to serve. Without memory or provenance, collections–like stones–are just inanimate objects.
How successful are newer versions of museum databases at including extensive provenance information? Can you foresee the end to the accession file cabinet’s usefulness?
Posted on October 3, 2011, in collections access, collections management and tagged accession files, Joe Beine, memories, museum databases, Paige Myers, provenance. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.