This is what I said last year on Oklahoma City, so that you know where I’m coming from.
This is what Elizabeth Pye says in her book, The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Context
My talk last year was very theoretical. And the term “Rembrandt Rule” is itself and ephemeral concept. Today, I’d like to make this more concrete, and show how some of these ideas are embedded in museum practice. Authority: Curators, registrars, conservators and other “professional” object handlers prohibit touch partly as a means to protect their special privilege to handle objects on a daily basis.
Some language from typical policies and museum standards documents.
Is “Restriction” even the right word?
We utilize a three-tier system for determining how objects will be utilized once they enter our collection. This is institutionalized in our forms for loans for non-exhibition purposes, and in our collecting plan. Rembrandt example: Two 18th century portraits by Joseph Blackburn, early Federal gilded girandoleInterpretation example: This desk. Newport, ca. 1770. Pieces from our silver collection. Instructional collection: 1940 Steinway Grand piano. Stereo card collection. Some portraits.But we are not a museum. What do other places do?
Some museums use deaccessioned objects, or objects that have been specially chosen or purchased, to create hands-on education collections.Read Buck and Gilmore quote first. This is what they say about education collections…One place that does this creatively and aggressively is the…
Highest standards of collection care are utilized: low lighting, security glass, barriers, security guardsBut some things are touchable.It doesn’t go far enough. The space if foreboding. Access is slight for an exhibition that should be about access—to our government.
Spoke with Dave Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs
In this case, the sensory connection was through a smell, that connected the visitor to the deeper meaning of the site.It should be noted that since I visited this site about five years ago, Dr. Bob’s bedroom can now only be viewed from the hallway because of the theft of some smaller items.
In this case, immersion in the space, including contact with objects from the past, enhanced the educational experience.
Original Farnsworth collections are gone. The current collections are from the second owner.
From left: Andy Warhol, David Whitney, Philip Johnson, Dr. John Dalton, and Robert A. M. Stern in the Glass House in 1964Glass House conversations were top-down programmingPros and cons are for both sites
So, what are some of the concrete benefits of expanded use of collections, especially involving touch?
I don’t need to read this quote. Just leave it on the screen and read the note below.It’s important to note that touching alone does not provide an enriching experience. Reach Advisors discovered that touching alone did not create museum memories as clear and vivid as a combination of touching and some other form of interpretation. Expanded use of collections still needs to be tied to well-conceived programs conducted by experienced and knowledgeable staff and volunteers.
Last year, I proposed a revised philosophy.But how can we structure this concept so that it isn’t ephemeral? So that we can explain it to our boards? So that it gives some guidance to our staff?
The Rembrandt Rule is a paradigm that is institutionalized by museum standards and policies.We don’t know enough to determine which objects will create the most powerful and useful experiences—but we do know enough to begin to expand use of collections.I will conclude the same way that I concluded my talk last year:
Hands-on v. Hands-off, Rembrandt rule
HANDS-ON vs. HANDS-OFF:<br />THE REMBRANDT RULE REVISITED<br />American Association for State and Local History<br />Annual Meeting, 2011<br />Ron M. Potvin<br />Assistant Director & Curator<br />John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities & Cultural Heritage<br />Brown University<br />
“Are we cheating our visitors by simply showing and describing objects? Can using an object in an ‘authentic’ way facilitate a more immediate connection with people in the past who performed the same act? A one-size-fits-all approach to collections impedes the ability of museums to creatively engage visitors.” <br />Remarks by Ron M. Potvin at the <br />AASLH Annual Meeting 2010<br />
“It is important for museum professionals to realise what a powerful, almost magical, experience touch can provide when handling something venerated. This does not have to be an obviously ritual object—it could be a Paleolithic hand-axe awesome for its extraordinary age, or a slave yoke redolent of misery.”<br /> Elizabeth Pye, The Power of Touch (2007)<br />
WHY DON’T WE ALLOW <br />TOUCHING OF ARTIFACTS?<br /><ul><li>Breakage
Authority vs. Shared Authority</li></li></ul><li>THE REMBRANDT RULE INSTITUTIONALIZED<br />Deeds of Gift, Loan Agreements, Collecting Plans and Policies<br />Specific wishes of the donor or lender must be considered, as well as “boilerplate” language in loan agreements, deeds of gift, and museum policy.<br />“I understand that the management, use, display, or disposition of my donation shall be in accordance with the professional judgment of the trustees and director of the museum.”<br />“Objects borrowed shall be given proper care to insure against loss, damage or deterioration. Objects will be handled only by experienced personnel.”<br />Quotes are from sample documents in Buck and Gilmore, The New Museum Registration Methods (2010)<br /><ul><li>Museum Professional Training and Standards of Care</li></ul>“Stewardship is the careful, sound, and responsible management of that which is entrusted to a museum’s care. Possession of collections incurs legal, social, and ethical obligations to provide proper physical storage, management and care for the collections. Effective collections stewardship ensures that the objects the museum owns, borrows, holds in its custody, and/or uses are available and accessible to present and future generations.”<br />AAM Accreditation Commission’s Expectations Regarding Collections Stewardship, 2005<br />
CAN WE “GET AROUND” <br />THESE RESTRICTIONS<br />
1. Flexible Loan Agreements and Collections Policies<br />John Nicholas Brown Center <br />for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage<br />Three-tier collections management system, described <br />in loan agreements and collecting plan<br />“Rembrandts”: “The JNBC will protect objects from fire, theft, mishandling, dirt and insects and extremes of temperature and humidity.” Highest level of care.<br />Interpretation Collections: “The JNBC may use interpretation collections for instructional purposes in carefully controlled circumstances.”<br />Instructional Collections: “The JNBC utilizes these collections for the instruction, practical use, or enjoyment of students, researchers and the general public. These objects may be examined, handled, or dismantled by students or researchers, or displayed for extended periods of time for interpretive or decorative purposes, and will be exposed to wear and tear commensurate with their use and function.”<br />
2. Study and Education Collections<br />Alaska State Museums, Sheldon Jackson Museum<br />“Often items can be used for scientific study, school programs, hands-on demonstrations, exhibition props, or testing in conservation research. In these cases, it is expected that the objects will be subject to physical deterioration or destruction over time.”<br />Buck and Gilmore, The New Museum Registration Methods (2010)<br />Curators work with teachers to choose objects to loan for classroom use. Objects are integrated into programs and curriculum in a variety of ways including <br /><ul><li>Classroom exhibits
Models for students to create their own reproductions
Inspiration for creative writing, drawing, or drama
Primary research material for written and oral reports.</li></li></ul><li>3. Reproductions and Durable Objects<br />United States Capitol Visitors Center<br />The Exhibition Hall at the visitor’s center includes an 11-foot high tactile polyurethane model of the Capitol dome, reproductions of architectural features, and original building elements, all touchable.<br />
4. Replaceable Objects<br />Lower East Side Tenement Museum<br /><ul><li>Barrier-free tours—No velvet ropes or partitions
Appropriate objects purchased from antique stores
Security is still a concern, but not as big a concern as at other house museums</li></li></ul><li>CAN WE DO MORE?<br />The Scolnik House<br />“A Historic House of the Depression Era”<br /><ul><li>Opened in 2007
Part of the Lakeshore Museum Center in Muskegon, MI
Period appropriate furnishings and decorations
Self-guided, but with volunteers stationed on each floor</li></ul>“We encourage people to sit down and read a magazine from 1930. We invite them to play Monopoly, or the piano. We also invite visitors to write down their memories of the Great Depression.”<br /> Dawn M. Willi, Historic Sites Manager<br />“‘It reminds me of my grandma's house in town,’ Bourdo said. She looked over the Depression-era house and marveled at everything from the doctor's satchel left in the doorway to the canned goods in the old-fashioned cupboards. ‘I have not regretted my childhood,’ she said. ‘It might be a different story for my mom and dad, but for us kids, no, not once.’”<br /> Muskegon Chronicle (2009)<br />
Visitors, including some struggling with addiction, are still offered coffee and counseled at Robert Smith’s kitchen table
Tour is self guided. Many of the greeters are themselves recovering alcoholics. </li></ul>“I was very happy to see a coffee pot in the kitchen, and full too! There is something special about AA coffee. Upon walking into the kitchen, it smelled like an AA meeting. I imagine the conversations that took place in this room, and throughout this house, had an incredible depth and weight.”<br />Anonymous Recovering Alcoholic and Blogger<br />
NATIONAL TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION<br /><ul><li>Lincoln’s Cottage—Some rooms are interpreted with period pieces and visitors are allowed to sit on the furniture as part of the interpretive experience
The Trust wanted the cottage to be furnished with Lincoln’s ideas, not his furniture
Little documentation of what the Lincoln’s brought with them when they used the site
Reproductions were less expensive and replaceable </li></ul>Used for teacher training workshops in 2010<br />“The cottage provides a canvas to humanize the president, but it also provides an opportunity for historic perspective-taking. These figures were living in the 1800s and had things in common with us—grief, fear, the need for quiet time…”<br />8th-grade U.S. history teacher at Paul Public Charter School in Washington, DC.<br />
NATIONAL TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION<br />Farnsworth House, Plano, IL <br /><ul><li>Built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951
Still experimenting with possible uses and programs such as “Glass House Conversations.”
No consensus on appropriate uses</li></ul>From left: Andy Warhol, David Whitney, Philip Johnson, Dr. John Dalton, and Robert A. M. Stern in the Glass House in 1964<br />PROS<br /><ul><li>Provides income for running and maintaining the sites
Provides an immersive experience</li></ul>CONS<br /><ul><li>Creates an aura of exclusivity at odds with a public mission
Wear and tear on collections and sites</li></li></ul><li>BENEFITS OF A SENSORY EXPERIENCE<br /><ul><li>Evoking memories—Especially useful with seniors, displaced persons, and persons with dementia. Useful in forming connections to time and place
Enriching Museum Learning—Research by Reach Advisors indicates that adults under 50 are over two times more likely to include a hands-on experience in their memory of a museum visit than adults over 50
Individualized Learning—Touching an object encourages people to form their own meanings and connections, more so than seeing or hearing about an object
Activate Objects—Machines, mechanisms, and musical instruments are difficult to understand unless they can be run, manipulated, or played
Ethnography—The purpose and meaning of anthropological artifacts can best be understood by members of that community, which may require handing</li></li></ul><li>“Simply handling for handling’s sake may not be satisfying. Objects are ‘passive’ so, without some background information or some sort of focus for handling sessions, the preconceptions people bring with them may go unchallenged and little discovery or learning take place.”<br /> Elizabeth Pye, The Power of Touch (2007)<br />
Rather than “Don’t Touch Anything,” the new guideline should be “Don’t Touch Everything.” <br />
A MODEL FOR STRUCTURING A COLLECTIONS MANAGEMENT PROGRAM<br /><ul><li>Allows for increased flexibility in the use of collections and enhanced sensory experiences with objects
Acknowledges that not all objects are equal and so should not be treated the same way
The value of each of these different types of interactions should be treated as equally valid and important to a visitor’s experience</li></ul>FACILITATED OBJECTS<br />A group of objects that can be handled, touched, or used with the guidance of a trained interpreter.<br />“REMBRANDTS”<br />The base of your collections <br />in need of, and worthy of, the highest standard of care<br />
WHY AREN’T WE THERE YET?<br /><ul><li>The Rembrandt Rule
Lack of adequate research in the museum field about the relationship between objects and senses and emotions</li></ul>“The energies and collective wisdom of curators, conservators, educators, preservationists, and funders should be directed toward guiding historic sites in making decisions about responsible and flexible use of collections.”<br />Remarks by Ron M. Potvin at the <br />AASLH Annual Meeting 2010<br />
Ron M. Potvin<br />John Nicholas Brown Center, Brown University<br />Ronald_Potvin@Brown.edu<br />401-863-1177<br />