How much is it worth?
Objects have always been assigned a value, but that value can vary depending on where, when, and who you are. Value can mean a number of things, but some of the more common meanings the general public assign to the word relate to money, cultural heritage, or a certain event or place. Everyone has heard the English proverb “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” which sums up the view that value is subjective. A person’s education, gender, cultural and ethnic background, and even general morals can influence how they view an item’s value. There are several examples one can use to demonstrate how an object can mean many different things to many different people. One of the most notable is an old family quilt example.
Let’s say this quilt was made by a great-grandmother during the Great Depression. To her, this quilt represents a way to keep herself and her family warm. To her daughter, this quilt represents her mother’s strength and how she was able to cope with the hardships during that time, as well as a material connection to her mother after she has died. The great-grandchildren, a couple of generations removed from the realities of the Great Depression, also identify this quilt with the great-grandmother, but not as strongly as their mother did. When they need some extra money to pay for bills, the great-grandchildren consider selling the quilt, because they don’t place the same family value on the quilt as their mother. One of these great-grandchildren volunteers at a museum and refuses to let his siblings sell the quilt, assigning a more historic value to it. Even though the quilt is saved from being sold, the main reason for keeping the quilt in the family has changed from utilitarian use to identifying with family to connecting to a past event. People outside the family might assign a cultural value to the quilt, as the great-grandmother was from Ireland, or they might appreciate the design of the quilt itself. To conservators, the quilt would most likely be associated with a relatable connection to the past, surviving the Great Depression.
The viewpoints of the general public are often times very different from those of archaeologists and conservators. Archaeologists tend to connect artifacts to the site they came from and the people who lived in the area. The public generally views artifacts based on their most well-known association(s). Conservators often provide a way for bridging these differing values by giving the public a little of what they want while still conveying artifacts are more than one-dimensional timepieces. Sometimes an easy mediation is not possible. Museum politics play a large role in determining what the museum should spend its resources conserving and how those objects are displayed to the public (Malkogeorgou 2012). The conservator must balance their own conservator moral with the museum’s requests and still maintain a respect for the culture and procurer of the artifact. With all of these competing variables, conservators can fail to maintain the integrity of the object in question. An example of this is the treatment of the painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III. The material the restorer used to repair the painting was discovered to not be safely removable, which meant he had not followed conservation protocols to safeguard artifacts in order to fix the painting (Adelman 1994).
The varying views of value between the public, archaeologists, and conservators has a great impact on how objects are displayed. Each group wants to display artifacts in a way that emphasizes their particular values. It is important that displays attempt to portray more than one viewpoint of artifacts so that there are many ways to relate to them. Sometimes, it might even be necessary to focus on different aspects of artifacts through multiple exhibits or tours (Saunders 2014). By providing multiple interpretations, communities can have a greater sense of unity through a shared material culture.
Adelman, Peter. 1994. “Conservator Overreaching and the Art Owner: Contractual Protections against the Overzealous Restoration of Fine Art.” Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 12: 521-544.
Breneman, Judy Anne. 2010. “Hanna Balster’s Quilts.”
www.womenfolk.com/grandmothers/balster.htm (accessed 2/15/15).
Malkogeorgou, Titika. 2012. “Everything Judged on Its Own Merit? Object Conservation and the Secular Museum.” Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 10(2): 1-7.
Saunders, Jill. 2014. “Conservation in Museums and Inclusion of the Non-Professional.” Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 12(1): 1-13.