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Schrödinger’s Cat: Important Cultural Artifacts or Boring Junk

March 1st, 2013

Schrödinger’s Cat: Important Cultural Artifacts or Boring Junk

Jeneva Wright

I once knew an architect who, when applying for a new project, delivered his proposal in a box entirely filled with mud. His premise was that the visceral act of extracting the building concept from wet earth was critical to his artistic vision for the design. While the image of a wealthy client rolling up his sleeves to mine for a project bid has comedic value, the architect’s statement and method of expression has always impressed me. To me, this was a literal hands-on experience of art—but to another, this experience could be little more than a ruined manicure. Things are important to people, but we experience and value them in different ways. In this case, the choice of using a tangible experience to convey an artistic expression carries many similarities to historical museum display. The importance and interpretation of an object, however, varies greatly to the individual.

A tangible and perceptible link to an otherwise long-forgotten past can arguably present more impact and educational opportunities than any other historical experience. Objects matter in human cultural consciousness, whether revered or ignored, beautiful or utilitarian—and many reveal information that can redefine, strengthen, or reject what we know of history. Yet, curators and resource managers face many difficult choices in selecting which pieces are most worthy of display and conservation. Budget constraints, public interest, and the collective cultural remains of millennia of human history present a wide array of options on what pieces (and thus, what and whose history) to display and preserve.

For example, East Carolina University houses over 650 artifacts in their African Art Collection. Donated over the last sixteen years, the collection includes artifacts originating from across the African continent, spanning an unknown number of years, tribal groups, and proveniences. Only a handful of these artifacts are on display at any given time, rotating through the university’s Ledonia S. Wright African-American Cultural Center and Wellington B. Gray Gallery. ECU’s online Museum Without Walls exhibit also displays these objects; however, many of the pieces have no information listed on their significance (East Carolina University, 1998). 

ECU’s African Art Collection has tremendous inherent value in that it is a window into cultures that had little or no primary written histories; these objects are the historical record for their creators. But we might also ask why these artifacts, so minimally exhibited for the use of ECU students with so little presented or known information, have been displayed, conserved, and stored, using space and budget that could be reserved for local history or art? Is it their exotic origins, or a nod to the multi-cultural heritage of ECU’s student body, or is it merely that they were donated? How often are they used by the ECU students for study or enjoyment, and how much awareness has been raised on their availability to the larger public community? Has their full potential been maximized? To whom do they matter, why are they important, and what can we seek to learn from them? What has not been displayed in their place? In short, one individual might instantly derive value from this collection—but another might be uninterested, frustrated at the lack of available object information, or prefer relics of local history.

Historical resource managers must therefore constantly evaluate the direction for their collections. The huge opportunity presented by a visitor-artifact experience balances the potential negative consequences of neglecting other pieces. Moreover, even though different individuals will derive value and benefit from disparate objects, conservators must still decide which pieces to prioritize, and cultural resource managers must choose which pieces to accession and display. Thus, to some, my friend’s architectural achievement was the culmination of intense artistic process—but for a future resource manager, it is just as easily a muddy old box.


East Carolina University. 1998. African Art Collection http://web.lib.ecu.edu/africanart/aahome.htm (accessed 02/18/2013).

General Conservation

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