The Appreciation of an Artefact and the Different Lenses of Value
When working with material culture, it is important to consider the various values that can be placed on artefacts, both by professionals and the public. The meaning an artefact has to someone can be based on many different factors including the object’s economic value, historical value, and artistic value. The value of an object is very subjective and one object is able to have many different meanings to various people. Professionals such as archaeologists and conservators strive to understand the importance an artefact had to a culture. But, conservators and archaeologists often need to balance their own values that they place on an object with the cultural reasons for valuing the same object.
The public and professionals that work with artefacts, such as conservators and archaeologists, tend to value objects in different ways. The public is more likely to place an emotional value on an artefact than a conservator. Emotional values are based on sentiment and memories and objects that are given an emotional value evoke feelings from the viewer. An heirloom is an example of an object with emotional value. Those members of the public that decide to have an artefact conserved based on the object’s emotional value are often attempting to protect their own cultural history. In contrast, as Elizabeth Pye (2000) in Caring for the Past, suggests, conservators often value objects for their material heritage which includes historic values, artistic values, scientific values, cultural values as well as values based on condition. Conservators also value an object based on the artefact’s authenticity. The authenticity of an object is very important because it determines whether an object is able to be used to make conclusions about the culture that produced the artefact. Art conservators value an artefact for the skills and techniques that were used to produce an object. Finally, archaeologists and conservators also base their appreciation of an object on its age and rarity and both of these factors can be used later to determine which artefacts are placed on display in museums.
Additionally, artefacts are appreciated for their worth by both the public and conservators. Although, these separate groups focus on an object’s economic value for very different reasons. The public appreciates an artefact’s economic value for the sheer monetary worth of the object as well as the status that comes with owning an expensive artifact. However, archaeologists and conservators often deem the economic value of an artifact necessary in order to obtain insurance for the object. The public also determines the worth of an object based on the artefact’s utility. Those artefacts that are no longer useful lose their value to a member of the public. In contrast, conservators and archaeologists often value objects that have been disposed of and therefore, do not base their appreciation of an object on its use.
Most often, the interpretation of value is translated though exhibition and display of the material culture. Artefacts, which represent aspects that were valued by the culture of origin, should be selected for display. If a professional were to choose an object based on his or her own valuation system, the display would not properly educate the public. Professionals need to extremely careful when displaying artefacts because when an artefact is displayed improperly, the public develops incorrect assumptions about the artefact’s culture.
Pye, E. (2000). Caring for the Past: Issues in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. London: Maney Publishing.