I have to admit to being a collector. I also have to admit that my collecting policies are far from robust. We were recently donated an old bookcase. Rather than giving me space to put up some new books, this bookcase merely gave me room to unpack a set previously stored in a box.
I have been thinking about duplicate objects in collections. A quick scan of our bookcases at home led to me to find that we have four copies of Jane Eyre. This is perhaps a touch excessive. What are the four copies? Two are identical copies – the result of merging my partner’s book collection and mine. One is different edition with a new introduction giving some background context to the novel. The last is an ancient, ragged edition with its own significance – it contains notes from a school child hand-written long before we were born.
One curious point about museums that many visitors often do not know is that the institution’s collections commonly contain duplicates. Our personal collections can parallel those of museums. Collecting organisations merge and end up with multiple identical Rubik’s cubes. Ten Beehive matchboxes are stored in a drawer – each box differs from the others in some subtle way, with the group demonstrating the evolution of a brand. Two identical copies of a book in the collection may have very different histories, giving each special significance.
Duplicates in collections can arise from poor acquisition policies. If you’re a museum without a clear acquisition policy then the Acquisition factsheet (PDF) that is part of the UK Spectrum 4.0 standard is a good starting point.
I would love to see a museum exhibition about duplicates. An exhibition could relate the stories behind the multiple copies, shedding light on one element of museum practice. 100 specimens of the same butterfly may have arisen from research into the distribution or variations of that insect. Multiple copies of a similar domestic vase may have been acquired before the museum established a clear collecting policy. One object may be a sacrificial item used for school children to handle on visits, while other examples are more carefully conserved in the storage room. The museum may even manufacture reproductions, particularly for display or education purposes. It’s at times like this that Calvin’s Duplicator would come in handy.
Museums face challenges when trying to dispose of duplicates in their collections. Donated items often are tied to agreements with the original donor restricting what the museum can do with the item. Museums need to clearly document the reasoning behind the deaccession of an item. The Indianapolis Museum of Art have taken the bold move of publishing the records of all deaccessioned items, providing transparency in the decision making around the disposal of these items. You can see an example of this on the IMA website with this John Paul Jones medal.
Exhibiting the duplicates together can make for a striking display. George Page Museum has thousands of dire wolf skulls. Their striking presentation of an entire wall of skulls brings to life the carnage around the La Brea tar pits. A photo of one woman eating salad may appear banal, but when viewed as an album, photos of women laughing alone with salad highlights the comical absurdity of each individual photograph.
Luke Dearnley from the Powerhouse Museum suggested creating a Museum of Museum Practices to document both some of the inadequate old habits and the new better practices of museums. This exhibition would fit right in.