How can we know the future? Uncertainty, transformation, and magical techniques of significance assessment in museum collecting
Macdonald S & Morgan J (2018) How can we know the future? Uncertainty, transformation, and magical techniques of significance assessment in museum collecting. In: Assessment of Significance: Deuten - Bedeuten - Umdeuten. Assessment of Significance: Interpretation - Implication - Reinterpretation, 11.05.2017-13.05.2017. Berlin, Germany: Deutsches Historisches Museum, pp. 20-26.
Abstract Questions of significance are of perennial, inevitable relevance to museums. Indeed, one could, with Gottfried Korff, say that museums themselves are among the “meaning agencies of modernity” – the “Sinnagenturen der Moderne”. They engage in what in German is called ‘Sinnstiften’ or to endow with meaning. This is not just about specific meanings, however. By their very acts of selecting what to collect and/or exhibit, they make a performative statement that those things are significant, that they are meaningful. That is a central role of museums in our societies: to select from the vast number of possibilities. But therein lies the problem of what to accord significance to.
Although this can be seen as an intrinsic and thus eternal problem, it has not always been recognised as such – or at all. In this essay, we want to focus on how and why it has become such a concern in the present – a time in which anxiety over how to assess significance is undoubtedly especially acute. The reason for this increased struggle over assessing significance is sometimes framed as a consequence of “scarce resources”. That is, the problem is seen to lie in the fact that there are insufficient or even dwindling funds to support collecting. Drawing on our emerging findings from our involvement in the “Heritage Futures” research project (which we outline further below), we want to question this logic by arguing that this is only part of the story, and maybe not even its most interesting or determinant part. To do so, we look to the work of Rosmarie Beier-de Haan, which gives us some very good directions towards identifying other reasons for the heightened concern over assessing significance and the magical techniques to which, we argue, it leads.