Questions of value

Leather fire bucket at Florence Court, Co Fermanagh, inv. no. 630933. The painted tendrils shaped into an 'E' stand for 'Enniskillen', the earldom of the Cole family which owned Florence Court. ©National Trust

Leather fire bucket, at Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, inv. no. 630933. The painted tendrils shaped into an ‘E’ stand for ‘Enniskillen’, the earldom of the Cole family which owned Florence Court. ©National Trust

Yesterday I attended a conference organised by the Art Fund about the value of museums. There were a number of stimulating discussions about what kind of value museums have and how that value operates.

There seemed to be a consensus that museums should focus on what they are really good at: collecting, looking after, researching and making accessible interesting and beautiful things. It was commented that museums can have social and economic benefits too, but that those are best delivered through that core purpose.

Painted 'grotesque' decoration with tendrils, leaves and ribbons in the boudoir at Attingham Park, 1780s, possibly by Louis-André Delabrière. ©National Trust Images/James Mortimer

Painted ‘grotesque’ decoration with tendrils, leaves and ribbons in the boudoir at Attingham Park, 1780s, possibly by Louis-André Delabrière. ©National Trust Images/James Mortimer

There were some fascinating and contrasting examples of ‘value’. At one end of the spectrum, Graham W.J. Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, described the struggle to preserve a collection which is threatened with sale in order to plug the pensions deficit of the city. At the other end, Jack Persekian, director of the Palestinian Museum – as yet without a building and without a collection – showed examples of the objects cherished by individual Palestinians, objectively modest things which nevertheless have enormous subjective power.

This investigation of ‘value’ reminded me of the collections of the National Trust, where the modest can sometimes be just as significant as the fine. The leather bucket shown above was once simply an item of fire prevention at Florence Court. But the way it was made, its aged appearance and its connection to a particular place now give it an distinct aura, speaking to us on a number of different levels.

The charming conceit of painting the house owner’s initial on the bucket in vaguely classical tendrils links it to a long tradition of classicised floral decoration. The boudoir at Attingham, in the second image above, is another, particularly fine example of that tradition. And that boudoir, in turn, demonstrates how objects never exist in a vacuum, but always ‘speak’ to other objects within certain spaces and relationships.

So that leads me to propose that the value of museums, and of heritage more widely, resides in relationships: between objects, between objects and places and between objects and people.

4 Responses to “Questions of value”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Well, one hopes museums don’t decide too sell their collections, pensions deficit or no.

    Northampton sold their Egyptian sculpture to fund an extension. I hope they have good objects left to put in it. Surely they could have transferred it to somewhere else it would have been valued. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-northamptonshire-28257714

  2. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    I would add that museums provide relationships between how people lived and what they valued in comparison to the present, and that can make the past more real in a very personal way.

  3. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    It is timely that the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts described the struggle to preserve a collection which is threatened with sale by a bankrupted city.

    The students and I were talking about that EXACT issue in lectures this morning… private Vs public collections, where should the money come from in Depression years etc, can patrons control their museums after their death etc.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew and Helen, indeed, and there are some more examples here – http://bbc.in/1y24kPl – of local authorities selling or considering selling works of art from their museums – some to fund museum or cultural services, some just to fund other council deficits. One can understand the pressure councils are under in the current economic climate, but equally once you have sold a unique work it and its benefit to the local community is gone forever. And of course if disposals are seen to be controversial that may affect the ability of those museums to fundraise and collect in future.

    Interesting also to see how the Northampton issue became even more political by the intervention of the Egyptian ambassador.

    Mark, yes objects can be so powerful in bringing the past to life. Professor Margot Finn gave an interesting lecture a while ago about how academic historians, who are normally focused on written documentation, can benefit from the encounter with historical objects: http://bit.ly/1r2x8GR

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