Not for us in our Present?

Reading the obituary of the distinguished documentarist Michael Grigsby, who died recently, I was reminded of one of the principles I articulated in my book on the history of science films: the directors of the films I was studying made their works to communicate to people in their present, not to become historical evidence for us. Despite this, they are preserved in archives. Ian Christie’s account of Grigsby’s practice stressed how his subjects, including the Inuit, were also able to use the films to communicate their lives to others. In other words, for their present they did social and political work. But for us the status of the films is irrevocably different: they have become complex historical evidence of subjects, makers, techniques, business, representational conventions, and much more.

Similarly, in our first heritage decisions workshop, we discussed the example of some 19thc brewery buildings on the outskirts of Leicester which their owner had applied for permission to demolish. The Victorians who had these structures put up did so presumably because they saw a market in ales to slake the thirsts of the operatives of sock-knitting machines after long days at the loom. They were not setting out to make structures that would become old buildings to exercise our preservationist aesthetics and consciousnesses.

But there are people who make things specifically for those not yet born, who trade with posterity. The builders of monuments, for example, doubtless look beyond the fee they will charge for the design and production. Many artists may also reach out to create work that they hope engages with eternal concerns even as they labour within the terms, and using the materials, of their own particular times.

It is here that the power in heritage decision making is exercised, precisely in determining what is passed to posterity, action which creates a change in status of the thing preserved, the thing that becomes ‘heritage’. In a sense when we too make such decisions we do so for our present, because we want to enjoy the old brewery buildings ourselves. But we also have more than half an eye on those who will come after us: we make decisions using our values on behalf of those whose values we cannot know, and which may well be different; we do it in an attempt to prolong the salience of our own values.

Museum collecting is one of those decision-making activities. I feel that the social history curators of my generation have become much more ambivalent about this than our predecessors were. The older generations of more connoisseurial collectors would concentrate on the acquisition of a small number of items they considered to be highly significant. Social history curators collect stuff because it is commonplace and, when they can, they collect lots, in the hope of memorialising today’s quotidian. In the process, the status of the objects changes: rubbish becomes relics, perhaps.

But, as I have argued, curators are not the only people playing this game. Donors to collections also commit to faith in memorialisation and seek a place in posterity, either for their sense of what is significant or, sometimes, for themselves. In the collections of the Science Museum there are many examples. For instance, let us take the X-Ray set made by the radiologist Russell Reynolds (1880-1964) within a year of the discovery, and when he was a schoolboy. You can see it in our Making the Modern World gallery. In donating it to the Museum in 1938, he not only generously contributed a very early machine to the national collection, he also memorialised his own significance within the story.

But the different status of the preserved object, or building, or whatever, is more apparent than real, and it is fragile. Most museums make disposals; objects decay, become damaged, turn out to be duplicates, and are deaccessioned. Institutions can also come to an end, as happened with the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum collections,  thought to number more than a million items at the time of the death of Henry Wellcome, its founder: 90% of items that were once Wellcome Collection items are now elsewhere, often in many kinds of museums run under ideologies radically different from Wellcome’s eccentric brand of evolutionary anthropology. Perhaps 10% survives in the rump of the collection cared for by the Science Museum.

Even when objects are ‘safely’ in the collection, they are not necessarily preserved in ‘suspended animation’. Sometimes museums alter objects – the Science Museum for example used to like to section machines so that visitors could see the workings. Art galleries have often cleaned paintings in ways that have been judged controversial by some. And donors too have, often intervened in the status of donated objects. Reynolds, for example, opted to donate a ‘better’ and later X-ray tube of his own design to complete his early machine; a Platonist like many scientists, he had in mind the ‘ideal’ X-ray machine, better than any authentic example.

Reynolds’ piece of medical apparatus had an original meaning in the present of 1896; it was lent a new significance when the Science Museum agreed to accept his offer to donate – it became a historical artefact – and that status was rendered fluid again as he modified its component parts. Now Reynolds is long dead he no longer has control over the meanings that we attach to his machine. And our successors, and the successors of our visitors, in their present will attach new meanings to it that we cannot predict.

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2 thoughts on “Not for us in our Present?

  1. Pingback: Workshop 1: A research motto and some productive messiness | How should decisions about heritage be made?

  2. Pingback: Future proofing heritage decisions | How should decisions about heritage be made?

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