Keynote Abstract

Creating Objects Out of Things. How to Address the Challenge of Competing Object Narratives in Museums

Keynote speaker: Prof. Dr. Markus Hilgert

Museums tell stories about things. Each of these stories embodies and frames specific knowledge related to their material protagonists which, as a consequence, cease to be ‘simple’ things and turn into objects with characteristic features and functions.

Object narratives vary immensely depending on the sources and the nature of the knowledge they derive from. They may be academic or non-academic, sacred or secular, based on research or individual experience; they may be related to historical events or to challenges of today’s societies; they may pertain to the life of a human being or to the cultural heritage of a nation.

As museums increasingly recognize “the social life of things” (Appadurai), they are faced with the challenge of adequately documenting the narratives that result from this multi-perspective understanding of things. At the same time, they are called upon to develop strategies that will allow them to replace the traditional “curator’s discourse” with a more inclusive and participatory model of story-telling in their exhibitions. In addition, they need to identify means by which they are able to present and reconcile the often competing object narratives related to the same object, as exemplified by cases in which the legitimate ownership of an object is contested.

When used with discretion, digital media are useful tools to record, organize, and disseminate the sheer infinite multitude of object narratives from all fields of epistemic activity. At the same time, they allow museums to interact more efficiently with their audiences and to invite them to share their own object narratives. Against this backdrop, the digital transformation of museums may be seen as the prerequisite for a solid response to the ever-increasing number and social significance of knowledge-based ‘stories about things’.