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Extreme Collecting

Extreme Collecting: Challenging Practices for 21st Century Museums

Graeme Were
J.C.H. King
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Extreme Collecting
    Book Description:

    By exploring the processes of collecting, which challenge the bounds of normally acceptable practice, this book debates the practice of collecting 'difficult' objects, from a historical and contemporary perspective; and discusses the acquisition of objects related to war and genocide, and those purchased from the internet, as well as considering human remains, mass produced objects and illicitly traded antiquities. The aim is to apply a critical approach to the rigidity of museums in maintaining essentially nineteenth-century ideas of collecting; and to move towards identifying priorities for collection policies in museums, which are inclusive of acquiring 'difficult' objects. Much of the book engages with the question of the limits to the practice of collecting as a means to think through the implementation of new strategies.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-364-8
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Extreme Collecting: Dealing with Difficult Objects
    (pp. 1-16)
    Graeme Were

    Sally Price’s lecture ‘Silences in the Museum’, presented at the 2008 William Fagg lecture at the British Museum, raised the issue of the muted voices of objects in ethnographic displays that had been stripped of their right to express their difficult histories. Drawing on her recent workParis Primitive(Price, 2007) – an account of the formation of Chirac’s Musée du Quai Branly – she narrates how anthropologists presided over representations of objects in contestation with art dealers in terms of whether to portray ethnographic context or aesthetic judgements. Price goes on to suggest that museums can erase the question of the...


    • 1 The Material Culture of Persecution: Collecting for the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum
      (pp. 19-36)
      Suzanne Bardgett

      In December 2008, the Department of Holocaust and Genocide History received a call from Dr Ivor Stilitz of Muswell Hill, London, offering the Museum a tefillin bag containing a set of phylacteries with leather straps, the boxes painted black, such as Jewish men wear during prayers (Figure 1.1). The bag and its contents had been in his possession for many years, having been left in his parents’ house in Stoke Newington by a young engineer, who had rented a room from them over fifty years before. The lodger – Michael Maynard – had come to Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany...

    • 2 Lyricism and Offence in Egyptian Archaeology Collections
      (pp. 37-48)
      Stephen Quirke

      Receiving the invitation to contribute a paper on ‘Extreme Collecting’, my initial instinct was that the phrase must be tautologous, that all collecting is extreme in its practice. In these pages I have sought to work through that thinking from the experience of curatorship in collections of Egyptian antiquities. As a philogist, I include evidence from ancient Egyptian writings, conceiving language as one of the forces that shapes a society, a philosophy in practice, and so potentially a responce to modern thinking.

      In 1900, London-based archaeologist Flinders Petrie was directing excavations near al-Araba al-Madfuna in southern Egypt. In clearing the...

    • 3 Contested Human Remains
      (pp. 49-56)
      Jack Lohman

      In the 25 years or so during which the issue of human remains in museums has been argued, are we any nearer to an agreement or a consensus as to what should be done about these extreme collections? The fact that many museums have voluntarily repatriated such holdings or that others have been forced to do so by legislation has helped to move the discussion along in practice. However, in principle, a divide remains between those who argue for their return on cultural-religious grounds and those who argue for their retention on scientific grounds. Is a middle ground possible between...

    • 4 Extreme or Commonplace: The Collecting of Unprovenanced Antiquities
      (pp. 57-74)
      Kathryn Walker Tubb

      Collecting antiquities is fraught with legal, ethical and moral considerations due to the secrecy with which the trade cloaks itself, making distinguishing between the licit and illicit virtually impossible. Archaeological material is illicitly traded if it has been removed from its country of origin in violation of national patrimony laws vesting ownership in the state, or if it has been taken across borders in contravention of import and/or export legislation. However, proving that an artefact has been trafficked illicitly is extremely difficult. Unless it has been stolen from a museum or monument where it has been fully documented and is...

    • 5 Unfit for Society? The Case of the Galton Collection at University College London
      (pp. 75-90)
      Natasha McEnroe

      The ‘extreme’ nature of the Galton Collection and Archive at University College London (UCL) derives from the views, personality and approach of Francis Galton (1822–1911). Even in the context of the idealistic nineteenth century, Galton’s belief in his ability to use technologies of quantification and assessment to ‘improve’ the human race can be regarded as single-minded and verging on the obsessive – he was convinced not only that he was right, but that he held the key to the solution, and his independent wealth meant that he was able to pursue his interests to their extremes. As a progenitor of...


    • 6 Knowing the New
      (pp. 93-101)
      Susan Pearce

      An important segment of contemporary collecting is the emphasis placed upon contemporary, mass-produced material, like tea towels or carrier bags. Such collecting, although very widespread, challenges the bounds of acceptable practice, certainly among those whose mentalities have created what is generally acceptable. This sets out the extreme nature of this type of collecting, because it issues a challenge to normative views of modernist values, and to all the social and political issues with which these are entwined. But the keen reader will have raised an eyebrow at the implied notion that modernist values are still normative, and then will have...

    • 7 The Global Scope of Extreme Collecting: Japanese Woodblock Prints on the Internet
      (pp. 102-111)
      Richard Wilk

      In this chapter, I argue that some of the extremities of current collecting practices can be measured through scale and access.¹ Using the example of developments in the market for nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e), I show that the Internet and other electronic communications media have made it possible for ever-larger communities of collecting to emerge, and these communities have self–organised through a process of recognising and suppressing differences, like other communities of practice in competitive arenas like sports. In the process, new forms of authority are emerging which undercut traditional hierarchies of knowledge and expertise. The result is...

    • 8 Awkward Objects: Collecting, Deploying and Debating Relics
      (pp. 112-130)
      Jan Geisbusch

      ‘In Christian usage the word [relic] is applied to the material remains of a saint after his death and to sacred objects which have been in contact with his body’, according to theOxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church(Livingstone, 1996: 433). While this gives us a sort of ontological indication of what relics are, it tells us little about the actual object.

      In religious – or, more narrowly, Catholic – practice, which is the focus of this chapter, one may encounter relics in a number of forms: a church may display an entire body or a substantial body part,¹ either...

    • 9 Great Expectations and Modest Transactions: Art, Commodity and Collecting
      (pp. 131-154)
      Henrietta Lidchi

      This chapter considers questions that arise when collecting is undertaken in an environment determined by the vigour and dynamism of an art market and a flourishing tourist trade. The location for this discussion is the American Southwest whose status as a cultural destination has been firmly established for more than a hundred years, and whose current success remains inextricably linked to popular perceptions of Arcadian landscapes and ethnic diversity. The particular arena of interest is Southwestern jewellery, one of the most iconic Native American crafts (Figure 9.1), and an artistic domain of compelling interest to public institutions, but more especially...


    • 10 Extremes of Collecting at the Imperial War Museum 1917–2009: Struggles with the Large and the Ephemeral
      (pp. 157-167)
      Paul Cornish

      Large objects are a self-evident ‘extreme’ in the context of museum collections, while a less obvious but equally significant extreme is provided by ephemeral material (which may also be large). Of course, all museum objects have finite life spans – even if the deterioration of many of them moves at an exceedingly slow pace. So, while no museum can hope to preserve its collections in perpetuity, most are obliged to grapple with the problems inherent in collecting items which, by intent or by virtue of their composition, are of a potentially evanescent nature.

      The Imperial War Museum (IWM) has, since its...

    • 11 Plastics – Why Not? A Perspective from the Museum of Design in Plastics
      (pp. 168-180)
      Susan Lambert

      Everyone has something to say about plastics, sometimes good, sometimes bad. It was predicted by scientists in a rousing ending to the first popular book on plastics, written during the Second World War, that ‘When the dust and smoke of the present conflict have blown away and rebuilding has begun, science will return with new powers and resources to its proper creative task. Then we shall see growing up a new, brighter, cleaner and more beautiful world … the Plastics Age’ (Yarsley and Couzens, 1941: 152).

      By contrast, what this science led to was, for the novelist Norman Mailer, among...

    • 12 Time Capsules as Extreme Collecting
      (pp. 181-202)
      Brian Durrans

      Gift-wrapped and addressed to the future, time capsules exemplify ‘extreme collecting’ mainly because their purported benefit is deferred. This chapter considers what they signify in the present. As a museum curator, I was first attracted to time capsules as parallels to ethnographic exhibitions: how accurately do they represent their subjects (‘ the present’, ‘a culture’) to their audience (‘the future’, ‘the visitor’), and – above all – how might that audience detect or compensate for gaps in the record or the bias of the presenter (‘compiler’, ‘curator’)? It was striking how inconsistently time capsule compilers influence each other. Most ignore elementary conservation...

    • 13 Canning Cans – a Brand New Way of Looking at History
      (pp. 203-222)
      Robert Opie and J.C.H. King

      Robert Opie opened the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in December 2005 in Notting Hill, London. The Museum exhibits over 12,000 items. A further 500,000 items, including contemporary and historic advertising and packaging, collected in the last 40 years, is stored as a reference database. In the following discussion, recorded in 2009, Jonathan King talks to Robert Opie about the importance of this form of extreme collecting.¹

      How do you discipline yourself? How do you decide what to collect?That is the great debate. When I’m in Tesco’s and look at the huge number of items that there are...

  8. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 223-224)
  9. Index
    (pp. 225-238)