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Benjamin Filene Summary

Summary written by student participant Gabe Taylor

At the Future of Museum Collections Roundtable, Dr. Filene spoke about how museums find what is valuable to collect and how to take the stories of an object and create more meaningful experiences for our visitors. If the story is the first priority for museums, what is the role of the object and how might we redefine an artifact?  He outlined four approaches that, historically, museums have taken to objects.  He suggested that museums need to be intentional about what kind of collecting we are doing when and why. 

Exceptional objects are things that are exceptional and pique one’s curiosity. Completest collecting is the idea that if museums collect one or two of every object, then we will always have whatever we need for exhibits or research. This can also help to illustrate any story we want to tell with an exhibit. In story-driven collecting, things are collected not because of their physical appearance, but because they hold a valuable and meaningful story. If museums shift their focus to what stories objects in their collection hold, it allows them to part ways with less-meaningful objects and will also effect the acquisition process. The final approach is process-driven. If we use objects to model the interpretive process of museum curators and historians, it increases the transparency of the institution. It allows museum professionals to illustrate how things and events of the past are useful to inform audiences of the present.

A core technique in the interpretive process for Dr. Filene is to take one complicated object and explore the many layers of stories within the object. In doing so, this invites the audience to explore an object alongside the curatorial team. This allows experts to understand how various audiences can interpret a single item differently.

In evaluating these approaches, the focus is on the meaning-making that occurs in museums for visitors. How can we open up to visitors about what we do in museums without making it all about ourselves? This process allows audiences the freedom to fulfill their own interpretive needs without completely abandoning the fact that as professionals we do have some expertise.