Contemporary collecting risky – but important

In which I come to the defense of Carlene Stephen’s blog post on collecting Stanley, and mostly disagree with Thomas Soderqvist on contemporary collecting – though agree with him that we need to theorize contemporary collecting better…

Museums (at least American museums) commit to keeping things forever, so there’s always a risk to accessioning something into the collection. The decision to accept an artifact has a cost: acquisition costs, processing costs, and then significant storage costs, ad infinitum. The life-cycle cost of each accession to a museum would surprise the general public, and even many curators.

And collecting one thing means not collecting something else, what economists call opportunity cost. And so decisions must be made.

The benefit of collecting any particular artifact is uncertain. Will it be exhibited? Will researchers take advantage of it? Hard to say, with many objects.

So there’s a certain cost to collecting, both real in opportunities missed, and unknown benefit. That means there’s risk. Carlene Stephen’s essay was a nice description of some of those risks.

And the particular object Carlene describes – a very large object, by museum standards, with significant costs to collect and move and store, and one in the early stages of technological development – makes her case even stronger. Large artifacts require more careful consideration of benefit than small: if you’re going to collect, say, one car every few years, what should it be?

More interesting, though, is the issue of collecting the right stage of technological developments. The American History Museum, like most large museums that collect technological artifacts, has a large collection of early personal computers. Each one, at the time, seemed a breakthrough. Each one seemed essential for the collection. In retrospect, a few decades later, the fine distinctions between the Commodore Plus/4 or the Pronto Series 16 or the DEC Rainbow may not seem so important. The Stanley self-driving car might be a fine choice to capture the early history of self-driving cars, but it may be that the first car to drive by itself on regular roads, in regular traffic, or the first one in an accident driving on regular roads, in traffic, or the one that… one could go on at length. You only get to pick one; there’s a risk that you won’t pick the right one.

Thomas’s suggestion that it’s a mistake to try to pick milestones, though, is very important. Does “milestone” suggest a flawed model of technological change? The patent system sometimes sets our expectations about how to think about what’s important in new technologies, and it’s a bad model for the history of technology, and museums. We need to theorize “importance” in technology better than we do.

But museums make these decisions all the time, and even without good theory, curators get good at it. It’s one of the skills – little-appreciated skills – of the curator. Thomas Soderqvist suggests that we should “collect whatever today’s museum curators and the public at large find fascinating and are willing to investigate their professional or lay enthusiasm and extra working hours to acquire.” “Find fascinating” needs to be thought through. Automobile collectors collect every conceivable car; museums shouldn’t. As a former curator, I had to have an answer for why the Smithsonian didn’t collect one of each beanie baby, which many in the public at large found fascinating.

And museums set up structures to focus collecting: collections committees, collections acquisitions request essays. (These should be online, by the way; perhaps Carlene would be wiling to post the request to the Collections Committee online, to show the thoughtfulness that went into this decision.)

There’s a long history of contemporary collecting in museums, and a long history of controversy about it. There are ways to make these decisions less risky. Less onerous deaccession policies are one way to improved contemporary collecting. Some museums have considered a category of collecting that is more of a holding pattern than a permanent acquisition; artifacts can be easily deaccessioned in five or ten years, if they turn out to have been a bad choice.

I don’t know the details of collecting Stanley, but from a distance, it seems to have been a good choice. Was it the best possible choice? Only time will tell. Collecting contemporary historical artifacts is a risky business.

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