In his 2007 piece Rethinking the Rembrandt Rule, Jim Vaughan put forward the radical idea that this “rule” might not actually make a lot of sense for collections of historic objects on historic sites.


Would this generic glass insulator go for $5 mil at Christie’s – or $5.99 on eBay?

Seeming blasphemy. And yet, a vanguard of museum professionals – administrators, educators, and collections care staff – has taken up the charge. The American Association for State and Local History has stepped up to create a space for exploring this idea, testing its feasibility, and beginning to develop best practices. I attended a daylong workshop on the topic as part of the AASLH 2012 preconference, and it was hard not to feel like an underground conspirator learning how to overthrow a stagnant regime. These are exciting times.

It began with a recognition that looking at objects, especially in static displays, is just not going to cut it any more. Michelle Zupan of Hickory Hill began with ‘generational learning styles,’ a look at how differently people expect to interact with objects and sites today than they did just a generation ago. If we’re going to serve our new and potential audiences, we’ll need to move from a philosophy of “don’t touch anything” to “don’t touch everything.”

Dr. Ron Potvin of the John Nicholas Brown Center provided some historiography, reviewing distinctions museums already make amongst objects. Despite the official “they’re all Rembrandts” line, we haven’t exactly practiced as we’ve preached. Traveling trunk programs, exhibit props, and education collections were all attempts  to carve out a different set of rules for the use of objects with high multisensory appeal and interpretive power. We can’t deny that we’ve long known that some objects are “more equal than others” – and even if we don’t believe that, our insurance agents do.

But these distinctions, Potvin said, don’t go far enough to begin a more discriminating application of the Rembrandt rule. Most history museums are still saddled with large numbers of untouchable items that aren’t rare, fragile, or especially valuable, but still remain off limits to visitor interaction. And most museum visits are still stuck offering visitors a one-dimensional, narrow range of use-your-eyes,-not-your-hands experience.

So how to protect the true equivalent of Rembrandts in a collection, while distinguishing them from other objects which can sustain more use? We spent the day exploring some great strategies.

1. Develop tiered collections. There will always be some Rembrandts: special, irreplaceable, with spot-on provenance and mission relevance. A collections policy can establish a category for these rarities and list those objects within it, while still leaving room for other, less restricted categories to exist alongside it. Category design is up to each institution and its collections policy, but three to five categories seemed to work well. If Rembrandts are in Category A, Category B can be “facilitated use only,” handled in the presence of trained staff according to protocols developed for that purpose, while Category C could contain objects which visitors can independently handle, on a “please touch” display or handed around on a tour. The PastPerfect database can easily accommodate this kind of distinction and the associated records, and Jennessa Reed from PastPerfect was there to walk us through the process of setting up tiers.

2. Be Open. Matt Davis from The Old Governor’s Mansion, Milledgeville, GA, has actually been through this process — and lived to tell the tale.  If you need a confidence booster, listen to the remarkable story of reimaginination and reinstallation at this site. His number one recommendation: transparency. Starting very early on, they smoothed the way to full community buy-in through extensive education via press releases, events and “behind the scenes tours,” looping in stakeholders at every level. By the time they began the reinstallation, people knew what they were up to – and, more important, trusted them to do it appropriately.

Could these original objects stand up to use by visitors?

3. Make it part of an ongoing review process. Sites are already inventorying, researching, accessioning and deaccessioning, already asking themselves who they are and why they do what they do. Instituting a tiered collection embed right into a holistic planning process where collections and mission inform each other and prompt better decisions. Now may be the time to re-home some of those white elephants. After all, if it’s not a Rembrandt, and yet you still can’t envisioning using or studying it, chances are this object isn’t furthering your mission and purpose or serving the public.

4. Let Programs Lead. You don’t have to wait for the collections managers to become converts. Kelly Whitfield of the Atlanta History Center revamped a site’s programming and philosophy by dovetailing with collections tiering. Programs need to be redesigned for today’s visitors, learners, and curriculum standards, and to meet their demands, object access needs to change too. Should Rembrandts even be in many of our historic houses, especially ones with iffy climate control and minimal security? Probably not. By refurnishing historic buildings with objects robust enough to support interpretive points, a productive new range of experiences opens up, and the gems that need special care and protection can go into appropriate storage or display.

All of this is complex enough on its own, and we got deep into the how-to detail today. But I walked away with the certainty that yes, this can be done. History museums are  leading the way on an important re-envisioning of museum collections and their purpose. This is a thorough reconsideration of the role of objects in museums and how to best deploy them.

It’s game-changing, as Ron Potvin said in the closing, because it suggests a more nuanced and informed use of objects in which our public value and service dictates our standards, not the other way around.

It used to be that the implicit assumption that objects are to be maximally protected, and that having some around for limited use was the exception, a bone to throw educators desperate for higher-impact learning. With smart guidance from these groundbreaking experimenters, we may be moving to a museum practice where the assumption, instead, is that objects ought to be categorized by default to provide maximal access, unless there are strong indications otherwise. And once that assumption is made, access and meaningful experience are back where they belong: at the center of all museum practice.