Museums: Myths, Memories and Meaning

Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

A glittering blue gemstone the size of a walnut, the Hope Diamond is an object of beauty and a marvel of nature. But the real reason it’s in the Smithsonian Museum, said Professor of Anthropology Susan Kaplan, is the story of its supposed curse – a legend that probably arose as a marketing ploy.

This past semester Kaplan has been urging students to ponder why some objects slip into obscurity while others, like the Hope Diamond, become museum-worthy. “We are surrounded by stuff that has meaning to us,” Kaplan said. “Sometimes we convey that meaning to others, and these things become heirlooms or treasures.”

As part of her course Who Owns the Past? The Roles of Museums in Preserving and Presenting Culture, Kaplan – who also directs The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin – challenged her students to grapple with connections between object history, personal meaning, and society’s attachment to material artifacts. The fruits of their labor were displayed in two exhibits on the first and second floors of Hubbard Hall in early December.

The first exhibit, Objects Have Stories and Provoke Memories, focused on the narratives behind material goods – stories that sometimes hold more significance than the item itself, as with the Hope Diamond. Kaplan frequented thrift shops and flea markets last summer in search of unique paraphernalia, and asked each of her students to choose one object to describe in detail. Students invented two-page histories for their objects and then boiled those stories down into exhibit labels.

In the second project, teams of students explored the nuances of presentation and audience by creating their own miniature museum exhibits within cardboard box frames. For five weeks in a row this fall, two mini-museums popped up in locations all over campus each week; they were then consolidated into Hubbard Hall at the end of the semester. The project allowed students to practice arranging objects, creating labels, and even choosing locations – for example, “You’ve Got Mail” originally appeared across from the mail center, “Manufacturing Ingenuity” was first installed in Searles Science Building alongside Hamlin Engine, and “Baby Tube” popped up in the computer lab.

“When looking at museums, we are looking at all the techniques people use to convey a message,” Kaplan said. This semester’s projects gave her students firsthand experience with the ways museum curators and exhibit designers can ascribe value and significance to objects, and even alter our perception of the past – a lesson that reinforces the importance of being a skeptical viewer.


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