Do Museums Still Need Objects: Argumentative Essay

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The question “Do museums still need objects?” is a provocative question that intrigued me to review the existing literature on museum objects. I wanted to determine whether there exist arguments in favor of objects being in museums, or whether they have completely become redundant in the world of museums. I could not believe that museums can exist and function without having any objects in them at all. Nonetheless, after a thorough review of some of the existing literature on museum collections and objects, I started to realize that we cannot categorically say yes or no to the question at hand when it comes to the need for objects in museums.

I cannot provide a definitive answer to the question, 'Do museums still need objects?' given the complexity of the function of museum collections (Conn 20-58). I intend to approach the question by analyzing the changing nature of the relationship that exists between museums and museum collections over the years. In particular, the paper will explore the changing role of objects in museums as well as the different roles they play based on the type of museum that they are found to determine the need for objects in museums. It purposes to explore why museums display objects, the reason for the difference in perception of objects in different types of museums, and to determine whether objects are not as important as they once were in the function of a museum.

The Function of the Objects Placed in a Museum Display

When one makes a visit to a museum, all he or she expects to see are objects, of whatever shape or form, displayed throughout the premise. In the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, when museums first emerged, they were perceived by many as public institutions housing keen collections of people who would like to share their findings with the members of the public. As the existing museums began to expand and new ones erupted in the 19th Century, many museums realized that devoting themselves to the collection, organization, and display of particular categories of knowledge was the only rational way for them to make sense of the world. Thus, they began focusing their efforts on engaging with their collection and careful considerations about the object's function within the displays of the museum. Samuel Alberti states that museums cataloged, stored, and did research on objects (Alberti 567). He also adds that objects were subject to classification, categorization, analysis, and comparison (Alberti 567). Therefore, objects on museum displays were not there just to be looked at by the visitors. Instead, they would also serve to appeal to the visitors who would engage them further on the subject matter at hand.

Increased changes, needs, and developments forced museums to begin using objects within their collections in a different way. Knell says that the idea of continual re-evaluation and reinterpretation by museums is vitally important as it enables them to remain object-centered oases in a changing world (Knell 46). Museums have been forced to change the approach taken when making decisions on what to display as well as the manner or way in which they are displayed to enable them to achieve the required changes. Apart from having to reconsider the objects already in their possession, there has also been a need for museums to carefully consider the additional objects that they would like to add to the ones already in their possession (Conn 52). To begin with, the 20th Century saw many museums beginning to minimize the number of displayed objects - something that we can still see in most museums of the present day. For instance, natural history museums no longer display a complete collection of specimens in their possession. On the other hand, art galleries have moved away from displaying their paintings all over the ceiling, floor, and walls.

The museums’ idea of reducing the number of objects displayed to the visitors, on the surface, sounds like a sensible idea given that having too many objects on display may end up making the visitors overwhelmed. Having too many objects on display increases the chances of not doing a detailed interpretation of the objects, thus leaving many with no detailed explanation of their reason for being in the display. Having fewer objects enables the museums to provide the intended stories concerning a particular object successfully and to kill any possibilities of telling alternative stories concerning the object that may arise due to inadequate explanation (Conn 23). Even Elizabeth Wood and Latham Kiersten support this idea of having fewer objects on display for a detailed explanation by stating that museums should do have fewer objects and provide detailed information given that objects cannot speak for themselves (Wood and Kiersten 121).

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Moving on, getting to grips with the different types of collections in their possession is another issue that many museums have had to get used to for decades. In many cases, especially in instances where a museum had been established to showcase a single person's collection primarily, the types of objects owned could be quite diverse to the extent that it forces the organization to place them in different categories. When it comes to the use of anthropological objects in museums, Conn argues that some natural history museums have found themselves taking care of some collections that most of them wish were not in their possession (Conn 34). He also points out that these museums are now considering and displaying some objects that were once considered anthropological as art (Conn 34). Doing so makes some sense, given the continued reinterpretation of objects. Simon Knell supports this idea by pointing out that “Many objects in natural science collections may have little use to modern science but are rather objects of history and culture” (p. 28). There is no need to get rid of an object if it can still be utilized in communicating a narrative to the visitors. We should understand that an individual collected some objects to meet the needs of particular interest during that time and that the collector(s) did not consider how such objects would be used several decades after their collection.

It is always advisable to consider the culture or place that an object is from or even what it represents when attempting to reinterpret the object. It may happen that there exist various stories attached to an object that one can tell about it. However, failing to consider the origins of the object may result in the delivery of a false impression of the object to the visitors. One can understand an object only by considering the cultural context in which the object was produced, as well as the new circumstances into which the object has moved (Joy 545). However, because of the sacred nature of the objects in some cultures, access to knowledge about certain objects as well as their interpretation rights may be limited or controlled in some communities. Perhaps, this probably explains why some non-western museums lack their collections, although they still use objects. According to Christina Kreps, some cultures have devised ways to preserve and display their past without the need for them to form museum collections (Kreps 464). Instead, such cultures have resorted to the production of replicas or borrowing objects for their display (Kreps 464).

The current position occupied by objects in museums varies from one museum to another. In some cases, objects are instrumental to the functioning of museums, while in others, their role has significantly been reduced. In other museums, objects are virtually nonexistent in galleries as they have been replaced by interactive technologies and audio-visual (Conn 20). The 21st-century museums have developed different improved ways of representing and narrating stories to their visitors. Some museums have resorted to the use of a mixture of audio-visual and live performances to increase the visitors’ experience. Mobile devices have been developed to the point where people can experience geo-tagged historical content while walking around in the world. For instance, the Museum of London’s street museum mobile application allows users to pull up images from another era and compare them with now as they walk around London.

Despite the new technologies used in different museums, most museums usually employ such technologies alongside their existing objects. Steven Conn argues in his book that objects have no place in museums because many people no longer believe in the objects' ability to convey knowledge and tell stories (Conn 7). However, the increasing use of interactivity in museums across the globe should be seen as an instrumental addition that can help us to explore objects’ stories and meaning instead of perceiving it as an end of the use of objects in museums. The traditional object-oriented museums should not be overlooked but preserved as we move forward into a new dimension characterized by interactivity. The demand for interactivity has increased drastically. As the younger generation increases to make a larger percentage of museum visitors, many history museums across the globe continue to expect that their visitors will want to interact with their objects by tagging and commenting. Some museums are yet to embrace these new demands as they still maintain good old-fashioned touching. Most of the objects are still held behind closed doors, velvet ropes, or glass. As long as the interactivity elements being employed in a museum do not alter the intended narrative of an object to the visitors, then I would encourage the use of such new technologies. After all, the primary objective of museums today is to be educational.


In summary, the reviewed literature in this discussion concerning objects in museums has revealed the dramatic change in the use of objects in museums given the evolution of museums' functions. Despite the evolution and changes experienced in the function of museums, the place of objects in museums can never be obsolete as objects are still a significant part of museums. The place of objects in museums will continue to be there despite the change that comes by. Nonetheless, museum objects must have the ability to communicate with visitors by encouraging a higher level of interaction than they did in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries when they first started to operate. Museum objects must have other values apart from the age that increases their worth. Walking through a museum should be like walking through history. As one moves from one object to another, he or she should be in a position to see progressive developments or evolutionary changes in form, style, mentality, value, or invention. Objects are instrumental in improving a visitor’s experience whenever he or she visits the museum. Objects can be reinterpreted (Knell 38); hence, museums should not be afraid to continuously assess the objects in their possession and see to it that they are communicating adequately to the public whenever they come for a visit. Concerning the question of the need for objects in museums, I tend to believe that it is important to have them in museums despite the increased use of technology in the world today. Our life today has become so complicated, crazy, and unreal, thus making it reasonable to visit museums to have something real and authentic in our lives. Objects are our mark of authenticity and set museums apart from other forms of culture. Thus, I believe that museums still need objects. Nonetheless, there is still a need for a concerted effort to enhance objects to prove their value in educating and communicating stories to museum visitors on various subjects that interests them.

Works Cited

  1. Alberti, Samuel JMM. 'Objects and the Museum.' Isis 96.4 (2005): 559-571. Print.
  2. Conn, Steven. Do museums still need objects? Philadelphia: the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Print.
  3. Joy, Jody. 'Reinvigorating Object Biography: Reproducing the Drama of Object Lives.' World Archaeology 41.4 (2009): 540-556. Print.
  4. Knell, Simon J. Museums and the Future of Collecting. New York: Routledge, 2017.
  5. Kreps, Christina. 'Non-Western Models of Museums and Curation in Cross-Cultural Perspective.' A Companion to Museum Studies (2006): 457-472. Print.
  6. Wood, Elizabeth, and Kiersten F. Latham. The objects of experience: Transforming visitor-object encounters in museums. New York: Routledge, 2016. Print.
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