In April, Ole Winther, head of department in the Agency for Culture and Palaces, attended a meeting on the future for Danish museums in Malmø, Sweden. During the meeting he said:
“We have many, many storage units in Denmark, that are filled with old junk – to put it bluntly. We have about 22-25 million museum objects in Denmark, and we probably have to get down to 6 or 7 million, when we are done.”
Thus indicating that Danish museums are in a dire need of tidying up – they need to throw away the junk that has accumulated in their storage rooms since the first Danish museums were founded in the 1820s.
But is it so simple? Maybe you have tried cleaning up your own garage or attic and know the answer yourself? Lots of memories tend to come to the surface when you rummage through boxes, and not everyone finds it easy to let go of even the smallest and seemingly insignificant items. Because some things are just more than things.
Take this lipstick for instance. On the surface it looks just like any old lipstick, but this tiny item was part of the third Central-Asia expedition from 1947-1952. It might have belonged to the only woman, botanist Aase Engell Køie, on the team. In fact, she was the only woman to participate in any of the four Central-Asia expeditions. The expedition travelled through Afghanistan and Sikkim in India, collecting objects and documenting the fauna, geology and people.
The lipstick, seemingly unimportant, can thus tell us a story together with the other items from the expedition team itself of what it was like to travel so far from home and how ethnographic collections came into being. It can also tell us that even though these people braved a strange new countryside and for them foreign nature and culture, it might still have been important for Aase to look effortless despite the obstacles of their journey. Or it may have functioned as sun-block for the whole team.
The lipstick, which name is sans égal 33, can therefore give us a very personal glimpse without equal into the lives of these explorers, who helped built up our ethnographic collections.
But let’s return to Ole Winther with that in mind. Multiple museum professionals have come forth in the wake of his comment to discuss how some artefacts, that have duplicates or are in a very bad condition, may be something of which we can discard. Others have pointed to the museum law that ensures that the process of discarding artefacts is meticulous so we don’t discard something by accident.
The essence of the critiques of Winther’s comment is the question of whether we can actually guess what objects will be significant for our future generations to understand us and those who came before. Museum professionals make these guesses every time they bring in new objects to their collections and revisit them again and again during their work. So even though some of the objects might look insignificant, they could carry everything from grand stories of Denmark, of the world, or very intimate, personal stories about people whom we live among. All of these stories are needed if we are to in any way understand how we came to be where we are at today.
But where does all this leave our lipstick? If it is never exhibited, how can people ever view it as anything other than just a used old lipstick? Can it share its value from its place on the shelf of the storage room? Maybe instead of throwing out the junk, museums could open the storage units and display the richness that never reaches the highly curated exhibitions. What do you think?
//Katrine Mandrup Bach
Altinget, Chef i Kulturstyrelsen: Halvdelen af alle museumsgenstande kan kasseres, 29. Maj 2018:
DR Nyheder, Slibesten, dukkevogne og faner – Her ern ogle af de ting, museerne kasserer, 29. Maj 2018:
Geografisk Tidsskrift, Bind 44 (1941) Nationalmuseets etnografiske Samling 1940: