For various reasons, Kathy Mattea’s song “Time Passes By” has been popping up on my mental playlist recently. That one, and “Record Time (33,45,78)” seem to sum up my experiences at various times, although “Record Time” is probably the more accurate of the two when it comes to describing my world. Anyway. “Time Passes By” is about loving and living while we can, but the point is that things change, no matter what we might want.
A new generation, so to speak, now runs the large museum where I have done a lot of work and research. It has been a few years since I was last digging around in their archives, and the new folks don’t know me on sight the way the older staff did. They have changed some policies, which led to a bit of confusion until credentials were confirmed. Academics and museum research is a small world, but not that small, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the mild confusion and hesitation. All is well, connections are restored, and tentative plans made for future in-depth research and study.
Time passed by. As I said, I’m no longer known on sight, and it’s been a while since I’ve done a presentation at any local museum. My every-day work made it challenging, and the last two years have been heck for trying to do research on pretty much anything. I mean, even field geology and biology were fraught in 2020 in NM, because the governor banned out-of-state residents from having access to state or national parks! It’s hard to study the geology of, say, Frijoles Canyon or the Valle Grande caldera complex when the state police won’t let you get close to the gate. I suspect academic credentials, connections, and a few other things eased into the right in-boxes might have opened access, but I didn’t bother trying to go to the state archives, for example. Everyone I worked with at the state archive in Santa Fe has retired, or moved up to bigger things, archivally speaking. Time passed.
The new generation is different. Museum science and archival practices have changed a lot over the past 30, or even 15 years. Emphasis has shifted in terms of what the goal of a museum or archive is. Now, state government archives will always be about state documents and government stuff. That’s baked in. But the focus of collections, how collections and exhibitions are managed, what is important in the collection and what can be set aside, or not brought into the collection, those have all changed. What stories are the most important to tell? How should those stories be told? Is there a grand narrative of history or should it be more of a jigsaw puzzle or patchwork within a chronology? All of those questions shape museums and history departments. What role to expert amateurs play in museology and curation, or should they? The older generation encouraged the expert amateur, at least in some fields. Today . . . I’m not so sure.
We might be seeing a swing from “museum management and curation as an art” toward “curation as a science.” With “science” comes international standards, and journals, and consensus in the field about philosophy and ideology, and statements of ethics and so on. This is not bad, in and of itself. Some aspects of curation have always been a science. How do you preserve textiles and things made of wood, leather, clay? Art conservation is chemistry as well as learning styles of art and studying framing. Will this kind of light fade or damage the items, and if so, what kind of illumination should be used? How can we make 1000+ year old documents available to researchers without accidentally destroying the documents? All these are questions that materials science and long experience can answer, and should. It’s when the social “sciences” get involved that things seem to become a bit odd, or at least odd compared to what I grew up with.
History museums, especially those that are not very, very narrowly focused, walk a bit of a tightrope. The public wants them to tell a story, and tell it in an engaging and neat way. Academics want to tell different stories, with a different emphasis on presentation. Activists look for certain things, donors look for other things—sometimes—and the curator and exhibit designers have to sort through all of these ideas and stories. I incline toward “tell it straight, as best we can, given what we know now, and update things as we know more.” That’s not always popular. I bristled a little at a new section of an older display, but . . . it covers something very timely and that is part of the current story, even if I disagree with it. I’m a grown-up, so I read the section and went back to the fun-for-me-stuff. I’m not going to throw a fit because I would have used that space for something else, or would have presented the material in a different way.
I liked the older generation’s way of doing things. It was comfortable to me, I fit in, and they did very good work. The new generation is skilled, they are doing good work, and eventually I’ll get back to my research and reclaim my little niche, or find a new niche. Time passes by.