Back in late June, I reported that the Manchester Museum had hired a hermit. At the time this seemed like a rather whimsical project, and I treated it with a fair amount of whimsy. Now that the hermit's 40 days in the Museum's tower are coming to an end, I see that this was actually quite a crafty exercise in - wait for it - community engagement. For those of you who haven't been following the hermit's blog, each day he has chosen an object from the museum's collections. His challenge to the wider community, which included both museum staff and the general public, was to come up with suggestions for the fate of the object - keep it in the collection, dispose of it in some way, or destroy it. If no-one bothered to offer at least some positive appreciation of the object, then the hermit would destroy it.
And people did offer appreciations, ranging from curatorial discourses to poetry to simple observations; take a look at this post for a good range of responses. The fate of the object would remain undecided until some sort of consensus decision was reached at which point "stewardship of the object will... be transferred to the respondent who may decide to return it to the Manchester Museum or some other place." Hmm, the registrarial part of me has a bunch of questions that I would like to explore regarding that statement, but I think we'll leave those to one side for now. It's easy to label this as a "pretentious self-serving pseudo-art project…," as one respondent did, but whether you like it or not, this is a genuine example of involving the community in the process of collection management. The comments and consensus will be fed back into the collections planning process for the Museum, and not in an abstract sense either.
Of course, there are things about this that make me suspicious; the Director of the Manchester Museum, Nick Merriman, is one of the main advocates for the concept of "sustainable collections" which is something that I've been critical of in past posts (which you can read here and here if you're interested). The cynic in me can't help thinking that the hermit project serves to put a smiley human face on the rather cold-blooded insititutional process of deaccessioning, which is generally driven by forces a lot less receptive to simple "positive appreciation" of an object. But enough of my griping. For now, I think we should applaud Merriman and the Manchester Museum for actually doing something where many of us only pay lip service.