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Visit Exhibition Collections Calendar Education
Issue #14
November 2015 - May 2016
what is a museum collection
Adi Hamer / January 27 2016

People who frequently visit museums know that the exhibits shown in the galleries are only a very small part of the collection a museum keeps in its basement. Legend has it that in the big museums the ratio is about one to ten. Collections are the museums' center of knowledge, and it is them that outline their character. If a museum is a center of knowledge, then the objects chosen to be part of the collection convey knowledge of some kind. Whether they are photographs, paintings, models, or texts, they always teach us something that derives from their distinctiveness and representation, and from their historical or esthetic significance.

[Radios from the San Francisco History Museum Collection | Photograph: J. Waits | From Radio Survivor website]

However, while the value of an art collection is perhaps self-evident due to the authenticity of each artwork, a design museum's collection usually also includes everyday objects that many people have in their homes in any case, since design is associated with the most familiar and practical objects which are mass produced. What, then, is the point of collecting them? It may be that it is only when these objects become history and evoke nostalgia in us that their value suddenly becomes more understandable. Paola Antonelli, senior curator at MoMA in New York, touched upon this subject when she attempted to explain why she believes it is important for the museum's collection to also include video games in general and well-known and popular ones in particular.

To Paola Antonelli's lecture on TED >>>

So what makes a museum what it is? "Today, beyond being a bureaucratic but binding clause in the Israeli Museum Law, a museum collection reflects the fields of interest of the museum in which it is housed, the exhibitions emerging from it, and its distinctiveness on the world museum map. Defining its collection helps a museum to outline its place, role, and uniqueness. Or, in other words, what makes a museum what it is", writes Galit Gaon, chief curator at Design Museum Holon.

[Screenshot of the Israel Museum's online design collection]

Numerous fundamental questions arise concerning the way a museum collection is created and formed. What in the collection is planned - for instance, what the museum decided to purchase, and what is circumstantial - and what did the museum receive as a donation. And in this context, are there objects that the museum refuses to accept or which it buries in the collection. However, one of the principal questions is what does a museum do with its collection? How is the extensive knowledge accumulated behind the scenes conveyed to the public? In most museums some of the galleries are officially dedicated to permanent or changing exhibits from the collection as part of national and international museum regulations. Contemporary digitization trends have led to many rich collections being displayed online, featuring sophisticated search engines, and enabling in-depth study without leaving the comfort of home. Many museums also offer special tours to the collection rooms in order to satisfy visitors' curiosity, providing a glimpse behind the scenes, and breathing life into the collection.

Yet the most prevalent expression of engaging in a collection is still displaying objects from the collection in exhibitions at the museum. The choice concerning which objects to include in an exhibition and under what theme is significant. Tel Aviv Museum of Art hosted Public Movement in an exhibition entitled "National Collection" (27.10.15-10.12.15) in which the performers raised various issues associated with the construction of nationalism by means of art with reference to museum collections. The exhibition, which was built for the museum, included transitions to the museum's "back rooms" and basements where the collection is housed. The members of Public Movement addressed the status and meaning of artworks in the collection at defining moments, such as the Ceremony of the Declaration of Independence (1948), which was held in the museum, and hanging on the walls were somber images of subjects associated with Judaism that were donated to the young museum collection. In contrast, the members of Public Movement also addressed times of emergency such as fire and how a hierarchy is created among the artworks by the decision which of them should be saved first.

Different museums contend in different ways with exhibitions of objects from their collection. At Petach Tikva Museum of Art they chose to handle collection exhibits by involving guest artists. In each collection exhibition a different artist is invited to create a new artwork with reference to one from the collection. Drorit Gur Arie, the museum's chief curator:

"What is a museum collection if not an underworld of art pieces kept, untouched, under the ground, like corpses, waiting for the eye of a curator-god to choose and resurrect them , if only for a few months, before they are returned to the nether regions once again?"

Gur Arie draws an analogy between a museum and a graveyard, and views art pieces not as merely material or object but as possessing spirit as well, and the collection housed in the museum's storerooms as being in a state of limbo, hovering between the living and the dead, the underworld (the storeroom) and the world of the living (the exhibition space). However, according to the artist and curator, this is a two-way street, for by exhibiting the collection the art pieces come back to life. Thus, video screenings can also be viewed as an act of resurrection, a journey back from oblivion to culture, from darkness to light, and from the storerooms of memory to "new context and interpretation", according to the curator.

[The Collection Room at the Birmingham Museum, England]

To chairs from the museum Collection >>>



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