The UCL Centre for Museums, Heritage and Material Culture Studies recently co-organised with the Mellon Foundation a series of ‘oral interventions’ about ‘Voices in (and around) the Museum’ :
The series asked a range of interesting questions about the voice, both literally and metaphorically, and its deployment as an affective strategy that could enhance and engage visitors’ experiences. Broadly, the talks centred on ‘how voices emanating from objects and subjects in the museum impact on the institution’s traditional remit of researching, collecting and displaying objects’. As someone researching curators’ lives, de-privileging the object is welcome, but I continue to be troubled by the question of what kind of narratives objects are supposed to voice? Why are narratives displaced onto the object? Is this a museum and collector’s fetish?
The idea that exhibitions and displays are narratives is commonplace, as is the idea that objects contain stories, usually memories, either official, or private. Titles of exhibitions are like book titles that indicate the subject (as it is also the title of the catalogue): ‘The Cult of Beauty’ (V&A), ‘Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500’ (The National Gallery). But it’s not objects that tell stories; it’s people who use objects to tell stories. So why do we continue to submit to the idea that objects tell stories?
Linda Sandino, CCW University of the Arts /V&A Senior Research Fellow