Object Values and Evidence



Those involved with cultural heritage collections, be they visitors, researchers, or stewards, value artifacts for many reasons. Some artifacts, especially precious metals and jewels, have intrinsic value. The materials are worth something, independent of their style or provenance. We value our collections for more subjective qualities, such as aesthetics, as well. Architectural embellishments, finished wood, and vintage clothing appear beautiful to many beholders. Age value is also important, especially in history museum collections. Often we prize an artifact that serves as a good example of a bygone way of life, such as this writing slate & abacus.

Collection stewards know that provenance is important, and our C2C workshops stress good collections record keeping. This abacus, for instance, is even more meaningful in conjunction with its provenance. A former slave used this while attending school soon after the Civil War. She grew up and became part of a prominent family in Cary, NC, and her son was the first African American mayor of that town. (To read more, find this object on NCDCR’s online collections database.)

Several years ago writers Rob Walker and Josh Glenn began an ongoing experiment that helps quantify the importance of provenance in their Significant Objects Project. After purchasing thrift-store objects, Walker and Glenn assigned an accomplished creative writer to develop a short story about each one. They then auctioned the object-story combo off on ebay. The significant object project purchased 100 objects for a total of $133.79 and sold them for $3,582.50. (totals from price list/ 2nd table) Every single object sold for at least twice what its thrift-store cost had been. The biggest increase in value had a sale price of 64 ½ times the original price. On average, the imagined provenances increased the value nearly 27 times.  Not only is the Significant Objects Project a fascinating study in material culture, it could also serve as the basis of an engaging public program at your institution. Click here for Walker’s discussion of the project and descriptions of public programs and fundraising events the project generated.

There are times when museum collections can be invaluable as evidence. (Few in the “evidence” category of the Significant Object Project actually functioned as such in their accompanying stories.) In a recent post here, NC Museum of Sciences Geology Curator, Chris Tacker, mentioned that the museum’s asbestos specimens have been used in court to prove the effects of radioactive environments on minerals. Similarly, the Museum’s plant and animal specimen collections can serve as evidence of changes in habitat. Archaeologists often consider the artifacts they unearth as evidence, especially when they make references that documents either neglect or contradict. For instance, wine and liquor bottles uncovered during the Thomas Wolfe Memorial archaeology project offer evidence that at least some folks at the “Old Kentucky Home” were drinking during Prohibition.

Does your cultural heritage collection contain artifacts which, together with their provenances, serve as evidence? One notable institution that values its history collection this way is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The artifacts and their associated records stand as testaments to the veracity of accounts of the murder and torture that have been questioned by fringe groups in recent decades.

Which artifacts in your institution could testify? Which historical trends or events could they prove or disprove?


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on May 21, 2013, in archaeology, collections management, Connecting to Collections, public programs and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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