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What was it like: a perspective on history in museums

Brian Crozier, National Museum of Australia, 27 March 2009

GUY HANSEN: Thank you very much, Peter. So we move into the meat of the conference today and begin our series of case studies of working with collections and presenting them in exhibitions. In this session here where we’re having papers of 15 minutes with five minutes questions each, and our first speaker in this session is Dr Brian Crozier. Brian, with his wife Faye Schutt is a principal in the museum heritage and historical consultancy business, Crozier Schutt Associates based in Brisbane.

He took early retirement from the Queensland Museum last year, after 17 years there as the senior curator of social history. Brian has a long-standing interest in the theory and practice of museum work, with a particular interest in exhibition development. He’s done a series of major exhibitions for the Queensland Museum, including most recently the Courage of Ordinary Men, three stories of the Victoria Cross. And Brian’s paper today is called ‘What it was like: a perspective on history in museums’.

BRIAN CROZIER: Thanks very much, Guy. Well, museums used to be simple. They were like the Queensland Museum in its early days - a single curator and a collection. You knew where you were. Museums now, of course, are multi-layered institutions with a whole series of supporting specialists contributing to their outcomes. And senior managers are now preoccupied with all the detritus of modern administration: board development and management, program design and administration, strategic planning and financial modelling - stay awake, please - public relations and advocacy, marketing and branding, education, real estate development, commercial licensing, capital formation and fund raising. You’ll notice I haven’t actually mentioned anywhere here about what the organisation is supposed to be doing.

In the end, of course, for museums, it’s actually just as simple as it always was. It’s all about the collection and how it’s used. As Gaynor Kavanagh has put it in Dream spaces - if you haven’t looked at it, please do:

The collection serves as a resource from which all other museum functions stem: exhibitions, educational work, identification and research, education and outreach.

Well, curators, of course, are central to this. They are the mediators between the collection and its various audiences. They don’t conserve it; they do manage its acquisition. If they don’t conserve it, they do manage its acquisition, research it or make it available for others to do so, communicate and exhibit it to the public.

The key process in a museum is collection and research, and the interpretation of the results of these activities for public and scholarly audiences. Curators do this using the peculiar language of material culture, and our products are the stories that our collections can tell us, told in all the different ways that are available to us.

The museum is a machine for collecting, researching and interpreting, and all other museum functions serve this end.

Well, this centrality of the curator’s role to the work of the museum needs to be asserted, because against all the other background noise of administration in a large institution it isn’t always recognised. At the same time, at least in the case of history curators, and of the nature of their characteristic form of communication, which is the exhibition, there is a parallel vagueness about what exhibitions are actually about and what sort of history is told in them, which goes back to the origins of history in the museum.

History, of course, is the newest of the museum curatorial disciplines. Scientific collecting was there from the beginning, and anthropological collecting grew out of it. But historical collections only achieved distinct status quite recently. In the case of the Queensland Museum, which of course I know best, the history and technology collection was given a separate identity only in 1970, and the emphasis then was on the history of technology.

I was the first Senior Curator of Social History at the Queensland Museum, and I was appointed in 1991, but I was appointed as a Senior Curator of History and Technology, and my title - and the corresponding name of the collection - were changed only at my own insistence.

Like other historians, history curators entering museums were confident that history is about argument from sources, that it is rigorous and provisional, that it is about explanation, and they could point to a body of theory behind it. The origins of it go back to when history moved from being a branch of literature written for a general literate audience to become an academic area of study. The formal justification for this around the turn of the century, at least for some, was that history was a science. In the steps of Ranke, generations of historians adopted the view of the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, JB Bury, who declared at his inauguration in 1902 that history is ‘simply a science, no less and no more’.

Well, the argument about this proposition went on for nearly half a century, but in the end historical method - encompassing such things as exhaustion of sources and rigorous argument from evidence - became the touchstone defining professional academic history. So as I say, history curators coming from this background have been quite confident about their method, how they do what they do.

But academic historians and historians in museums have, to my mind at least, been less successful in saying why they should do what they do, or why anyone should want them to do it. What is the role of the past and our study of it in our culture? Why should anyone who is not a historian care about what historians do and say? Museum historians are just as reticent about their own cultural role - we tend to talk on occasions like this about what we have done rather than why we should be doing it, without even the benefit of the kind of theory that guides academic history.

This is not to say there hasn’t been any consideration of the theoretical basis of museum history, just to say that on the whole we don’t seem to think very much about it. We’re very practical rather than theoretical people I think this is a pity. We’re working in a different field of history from the academics, and I think we need a better theoretical basis for what we do.

History, of course, is not only written in universities, it has a range of public faces - television and radio programs, museum exhibitions, books for a general audience, heritage interpretation and so on. What sort of response though is being aimed for here? How do these productions resonate, if they do, with their audiences? What meaning do they communicate? How should we assess them? How can history change someone’s view of the world and their place in it? How can it change their life? To repeat - why should they care?

Well, the answer I want to suggest is not 42 - but because they have been exposed to and asked to identify with the quality of past experience, which has been presented as far as it can be in terms of its full range of associated thought and feeling. My proposition is that this kind of history is about the enactment of past experience.

This has a number of implications about the nature of historical production in this context and the kind of validity that applies to it. We need then to have an idea about what the nature of our communication with our audience is about the past and how our collections can be interpreted as the focus of historical statements, about what the cultural role of history in museums is and about how they contribute to cultural development. We need to ask what we, as museum curators, do to contribute to the cultural life of our audience.

Two things are clear to start with, and they distinguish what we do from what academic historians typically do.

The first, of course, is that we deal in objects. What we say to our audience is, therefore, about communicating the significance of our objects and answering the questions that our objects put to us and defining a context in which that can be understood. It’s not primarily about making a general argument or explanation. It’s about telling the stories of our objects.

The second is that museum history is produced on the whole for a general audience. If we mount an exhibition and no-one comes we have failed. So before we say what’s on our mind we always have to ask who is likely to be listening and will they care about what we have to say?

I don’t think anyone’s going to argue about these two points. The next one may be a little more debatable, and it is that as well as documenting the conventional history of the object we also aim to communicate the nature of the experience with which the objects are associated. We try to say not only what happened but what it was like.

Not everyone has to agree with this, but to me it seems quite critical, because it’s in the communication of experience that what we have to say becomes culturally alive.This is where people are changed, where ideas are forged and where new perceptions are formed, from the apprehension of past experience. It’s through a communication of past experience that a relationship is created in people’s minds between the present and the past, and the past becomes part of present memory.

So it’s personal. It’s in your memory. It’s not something you academically understand. But it’s a personal experience that you have undergone. In effect, what we’re talking about is history as the re-enactment of significant past experience or, in other words, making historical experience personal. It’s about moving from a sense of historical events and processes having happened to someone else, to one in which, in some sense at least, they’ve happened to us, if only through exposure to the kind of experience a museum can provide.

Museums can provide this experience because they deal in objects and because of the nature of the exhibition medium. Unlike the documentary sources that underpin most academic historical research, objects can carry a range of significance from the events, themes and people with which they are associated. An object can be a metaphor with a range of meanings both technical - what is it, what did it do - and intangible - what was the experience of using this? What was the person like who owned it? What was the experience of the event with which it was associated? An object can evoke experience which is often personal.

Museums are well placed to communicate this experience because of the range of the interpretive techniques that are available to them through the exhibition medium through which objects are themselves experienced. Objects are tangible. You experience an object by all the senses we have discussed - sight, touch, smell, even taste - not all of which might be conservationally acceptable in an exhibition, but the point remains that exhibitions communicate through a wide range of means - pictures, objects, sounds as well as words- which may in the end be the least important part of what is communicated.

So to wrap all this up, museums are still about collections, despite appearances to the contrary, and curators are at the heart of the process of collection, research and interpretation, which is the key mission of a museum. History curators need to think about their theoretical position, and my suggestion is that their interpretation of their collection is at least as much about the experience that objects denote as it is with cognitive information.

Finally, the exhibition medium’s ability to evoke experience makes it well suited to this exercise. So in the end it’s not just about what happened but what it was like. Thank you.

QUESTION: by Jeff Bramley of the Donald Horne Institute for Cultural Heritage, University of Canberra, and some of our students are here today too, I’m pleased to be able to say.

The undergraduate course that we teach is perplexing in all sorts of ways. We’re trying to train people to be conservators, and that’s easy in some respects, because there are lots of things you can identify. Training people to be curators is much more difficult because of the very nature of museums themselves. You can pick up anything from anywhere and you need to make some sort of intelligent assessment about what it is and where it is from.

Do you have any advice for us educators in those circumstances when it comes to training people as historians, in the brief amount of time that we’ve got, to go out into the field and do their job?

BRIAN CROZIER: I do think that historians coming into museums are walking into different territory. I don’t think it’s the same thing as writing. Obviously we can perform on different levels of questions, but I do think that the issues that are involved in museum history are quite different. I was saying in the paper it is because of the nature of the evidence, and the evidence is to do with objects.

I suppose what I’m arguing is that you’ve got to look at least as much at the associations of the object and the kinds of intangible meanings that are attached to it as what it might give you in terms of objective explanations about events and people and so on.

I suppose I’m coming at this from a sort of literary artistic point of view, but I do really think that we have an advantage over artists and we have an advantage over historians, because what we’re talking about is real and the questions that we are asking are to do with real things. The meanings that we get from our objects are to do, I think, primarily, at least as far as we can communicate in ways that mean things to people, with the experiences that are attached to them.

So there’s a certain quality of imagination that is required in this, and that’s what I would encourage in your students to think, about - what is the experience that is associated with this? And what was it like to be there, to be using it, to be part of the event that it was part of.

QUESTION: by Alesandro Antenelo. You have invited us to disagree with you about your point about museum historians being different from academic historians on the basis of they talk about experience - so I will. It seems to me that that point can fail a little bit if you’re talking about objects to which a random Australian citizen walks into the National Museum, you know, whether it is part of a culture they’ve never been part of, part of a time they’ve obviously not lived in. What about connections with museum visitors to objects from cultures and times that they cannot possibly have a connection with, the human connection - is that the simple experience that you’re talking about? Would you comment about connections between visitors and times and places they could obviously have no connection to?

BRIAN CROZIER: I don’t think there’s a difficulty with that. Look, I take your point. I’m setting up a bit of a straw man here, and there are some wonderful histories written which really do engage with experience. I acknowledge all of that. But in terms of visitors who might have trouble with particular sorts of experiences, I do think it is the curator’s role to try to mediate between them and the object. It might not work, but I think that’s what the business is about. It’s about creating the significance that people can respond to. When I say ‘create’, I mean to discover it in the object and make it real for people. I do think that’s what a curator does. Does that answer your question?

QUESTION: It seemed the implication of what you were saying is you would try to elicit from people actual responses of their own lives.

BRIAN CROZIER: What I am saying, I suppose, is that there is a difference between understanding something intellectually from a book - and there’s nothing wrong with that - and an experience which is personal. So there’s a difference between your understanding about a historical event which you understand from written sources and your own personal experience from your own life. And I suppose what I’m trying to say is that what we’re trying to do is to build experiences from before you were alive into your own personal life through the re-experiencing, as possible, in a museum situation.

GUY HANSEN: Thanks very much, Brian.

Date published: 11 May 2009