Leaving the shell
I hope the objects and my responses have begun to emphasize that I am not asking some abstract question like ‘what do you think ought to be done with this?’ On the contrary, I’m asking a very specific question: ‘What are you prepared to do?’
Anyone willing to answer in some positive way, and in such a way as to inspire others to support them, will have succeeded in saving the object.
It is very easy to make moral pronouncements or have vague opinions. I am asking, however, for a thorough examination of what one actually does. Our real priorities reveal themselves in our actions. I’m not asking if one should care about something but whether you actually care about something. How far out of your way are you prepared to go for something you believe in?
I’m merely a sideshow in this, and my pathetic threat to destroy museum objects is a rather paltry act in the face of the actual destruction of reefs, oceans, forests, and peoples in which we are all complicit. What are we going to do to stop it?
Everyone, or almost everyone, believes museums are a ‘good thing’. So if we believe in looking after things how come we’re destroying them left right and centre? Are museums just a salve to our conscience? Like the medieval indulgences that would buy off your sins, do we as a society use the museum to corral a sense of sacredness we are not prepared to bestow on the material of our everyday lives?
I have no doubt at all that an intellectual case can be made for or against every object in the museum. What my action is intent on flushing out is who actually cares enough to carry out what they say? I have specified individual responses precisely because only individuals can carry anything out. Each of the objects in the museum was collected by an individual and is now looked after by individuals. Collections start and continue because of the ideas and enthusiasms of individuals. Often these motivations have been terribly misguided but I would rather suffer from the mistakes of an individual than the crushing anonymity of an institution. Individuals feel things. They are accountable. There can be a dialogue between individuals. The irrefutable momentum of corporations, on the other hand, is unstoppable by anyone. Our desecration of the planet is largely a result of the logic of corporations. Surely it is about time we wrested back personal responsibility?
I take it as read that of course all the people who work at the Museum already care about the objects in it. They have made it their life’s work. They are also explicitly working to share their enthusiasm with others. This game I have set up can be another opportunity for them to inspire new insights.
But then there is the institution of the museum. The method of disposal of objects I am proposing is of course highly irregular, but I see no ethical reason for advertising objects only in the Museums Journal, for instance. The Manchester Museum is part of a worldwide network of institutions which controls the movement of the world’s most valuable objects. In the age of the internet and of parliamentary democracy why shouldn’t the museum’s dealings also be open? What ethical guidelines forbid all of us from having a say in what happens to our heritage?
But the real issue I want to address is much larger than just that of museums. In taking a personal interest in our public institutions, perhaps we might develop a different kind of relationship with the world. One which does not rely on numbed compliance, or resigned powerlessness, or dumbstruck subservience to a priestly elite. But one which, on the other hand, recognizes that each of us has a vital role to play in the creation and conservation of beauty in our everyday lives.
OK, that’s enough light-hearted banter. Now on to the serious business of today’s object. In case any of you thought it was absurd of me to collect rainwater from the roof, or question the sanctity of the ‘Africa – unlocated’ cupboard, here is an example of an object currently in the museum stores. Apparently it was donated by an ex-Curator of Zoology, after lunch. I have seen a whole boxful of similar such delicacies. I’m sure someone will come up with a very good reason for it to be here. I thought I’d give them the opportunity.