A New Way To Display Material Culture
While our way of arranging objects has changed over time, people’s fascination with things has always led to displays of material culture. During the Renaissance, wealthy men in Europe curated “cabinets of curiosities,” (also called Wunderkammer, or Cabinets of Wonder) usually full of findings from the natural world such as shells, rocks, and stuffed animals. These exhibitions were often packed full of various objects, a demonstration of the wealth and knowledge of their owners. As a result, the displays were not always limited to actual cabinets, and sometimes took over entire rooms. Owners of collections inspired voyages around the globe in search of elusive and unknown objects. This interest in collections led to the later development of classification systems in order to understand and organize the natural world. In his work, Systema Naturae (1735), Carl Linnaeus provided a taxonomy system which our current organization of the natural world is based on.
Today’s museums, in contrast to the cabinets of curiosities of earlier centuries, usually feature only a small fraction of a collection for the public. Private researchers sometimes have access to the larger group of objects, but the knowledge of all available resources is usually hidden in the storerooms of museums.
There are benefits and drawbacks to this type of arrangement. While it is now possible for the general public to have access to material culture in museum collections, in contrast to the limited availability of the cabinets of the Renaissance, it is still limited and subject to the biases of the people creating the various exhibits. While the cabinets are more obviously a result of bias as they were the culmination of a single individual’s whims, recent exhibitions are still the result of people’s attempt to display certain attitudes and information to museumgoers.
A recent trip to a herbaria revealed to me the depths of knowledge often not seen by the general public. A curator pulled particular sheets with plants related to a class on pharmaceuticals, revealing the documentation involved with each plant. However, this herbaria does not have a public display: understanding how to conserve these plants is limited to those already involved in the field or active academic researchers. Further, understanding these sheets, and their organization system for arrangement in the storeroom, required the explanation of an expert: understanding these objects is still based on esoteric knowledge.
Some museums are currently working toward a new way to display and provide information about objects for the public, developing digital tools and displays to view more objects in depth. One idea is to photograph objects (including various layers and angles) and allow visitors to experience objects from home. However, this raises a new set of questions. What is gained and/or lost by viewing objects through a screen versus in person? Does this type of display inherently change our interaction with and understanding of material culture?
While this type of display allows people to view many more objects than in the past, without threat of destroying the object itself, we may sacrifice some sense of objects: their scale, color, and feel. Perhaps a solution is to supplement physical exhibitions with digital ones, allowing people to access the entirety of a museum’s collection while still accessing the objects themselves.