My Adversary: Apathy



If you can’t make people care about objects and the culture they represent, you can’t save them. You can preserve them, but you can’t save them. To make people care, you need a story. When the objects don’t come with a story of their own, it has to be hunted down and attached to the object like Peter Pan’s shadow. 

This is a gross oversimplification, but a lot of objects come to museums when their owners can no longer care about them due to death, illness, or no one in subsequent generations will care about them so the current owner goes looking for a new custodian. Most of the time objects come to the museum after someone has died or as someone is sorting out their belongings after a health scare. It’s not 100% of the time, but it is the vast majority. I do a lot more grief counseling than you’d imagine in a given year. I was lucky in that my first boss was also a chaplain so I had a good role model and assistance when I needed it as I was getting my footing. 

I give the donors an opportunity to tell me the stories (if any) that accompany the items. I wish I could tell you that the majority arrive with a story, but they don’t. Usually all I get is the name of a previous owner and a brief description of how they believe it was used. Sometimes that’s all that gets recorded and then it goes into storage. If the object inspires curiosity I will attempt to go all history detective on its ass. About 2 out of 3 times I turn up no further information or hit dead ends. But that third time I hit pay dirt and discover a story I can tell using the object to inspire the public to care about the object and its story. 

Objects that come with stories are the most valuable objects in any museum collection. A museum without stories is just a building full of stuff.