Museums hold collections in public trust. This means people like myself who take care of collections do so on behalf of the public. At its most grandiose, it means we take care of items to provide a material history of the entire human race both past and present. In more practical applications, it means taking care of objects on behalf of the community for whom the museum serves. In my museum’s case this is a geographic area, which means our community and therefore our mission must grow with the changes in the region itself.
Museums are not static. They can stagnate, yes, but to remain static means death. A slow death of deterioration and declining funding, but death. A museum that collects without cataloging, item care, and interpretation of objects is just an episode of Hoarders that charges admission. Cataloging means knowing what you have, where it came from, what you know about it, and where it is. Item care is making sure items are stored correctly in a way that slows their eventual deterioration without causing damage. Interpretation is what you know about the object, how it was used, who used it, and shared with researchers and visitors in a way that can be understood.
The example that sticks out in my mind is an object I haven’t yet been able to display because I can’t yet convey its importance and story in a way that school children through seniors will be able to get something out of it. The object is shaped sort of like a squat rocketship without fins and about the size of a keychain mace canister. It is the detonator to a Vietcong rocket. The rocket it belonged to went through the roof of the barracks of the helicopter mechanic on an entirely surrounded US installation during the Tet Offensive. It had absolutely hit its mark, but he hadn’t been there… though one of his buddies was. The next morning the mechanic fixed the helicopters that had been hit but not destroyed in the same attack and those helicopters went out and killed thousands of people.
I took this man’s story in person with him looking me in the eyes as he told me this. He was not proud of what happened, he had no doubt his barracks were targeted to keep him from doing what he ultimately did, and he felt he did his job well, but had no illusions of what that led to.
It’s my job to find a way to convey SOME PART of that story and even my reaction as the generation that came after… and to make sure that detonator survives into the future to be reinterpreted by those who will come after me.