Recently I’ve had more than my share of time to think about museums and objects, and what they mean to me and why I love them, and have dedicated my life to them, albeit a bit accidentally.
In the hours I spent alone in a curatorial office, listening to the murmur of school tours on the other side of the door, I began to see that curation and registration are means of managing the evidence locker of the future. We collect, tag, and maintain the means by which the future will understand the past, and it’s our job to be a neutral as we can—to refrain from laying the thumb of our prejudices on the scale—as we collect objects, images, and documents. It’s a game of forecasting, trying to guess what will best explain us and our time to the future, as well as Monday morning quarterbacking as we both weed and augment what was collected in the past to better reflect how we understand history now.
I was always a stickler for good data and record editing (and have raccoon-eyed photos of a catalog launch to prove it), and I make unkind sport of museum databases on a regular basis when I see misidentified and misdated objects. Good data matters—it’s everything, really—because if you don’t know what you have, and where it is, you might as well not have it. But more than that, compendia of data can show you things you didn’t expect to find.
Yale’s Rhode Island Furniture Archive is a good example of how a massive amount of data can be used. Take this record of side chair possibly made by John Carlile and Sons, and scroll down. That’s a lot of associated chairs. And they all look very similar. Examining the materials, especially secondary woods, of a labeled chair and comparing the style, make, and materials with other very similar chairs can help identify chairs, associate them with a maker, and provide a sense of Carlile’s production volume.
And Carlile’s easy! Looking at hundreds of pieces of furniture with some location provenance, reading probate inventories and other documents helped untangle James Halyburton or “Ally Burton” as a maker.
When you can see enough things at once, you can discern patterns and better understand exactly what it is you’re seeing. Good data makes that possible, makes concrete what was once solely seen as connoisseurship, and helps bring unknown stories, unrecognized people, to light. Data analysis is a powerful tool for better understanding the past: that’s why museum collections matter, and why I think it’s so important for museums to make their data accessible. It’s one of the ways we understand our collective past.