Collections as Currency? Objects, Exchange, Values and Institutions
Location British Museum - Sackler A
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Jude Philp (University of Sydney) email
  • Elizabeth Bonshek (Museum Victoria) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Robert Foster (University of Rochester)

Short abstract

Viewing museum collections as a form of currency opens up a space for the interrogation of museum practices. Papers will focus on how value is attributed, created and reassigned to objects at each moment from acquisition, to display, exchange, transfer and repatriation.

Long abstract

The role of value in museums is a contentious issue. Globally, many museums are being required to assign a monetary value to individual objects and entire collections. Valuation is, however, not a novel process within the context of collecting institutions. In the foundation period, field acquisition often took place as a consequence of negotiated social relations through barter and mediated with trade goods. Moving to the museum objects were revalued through standard practices of registration, exhibition, or exchange, for example, as 'duplicates.' Cultural objects were exchanged for other cultural objects or for natural history specimens with regimes of relative values understood as a form of currency between different institutions.

Benefitting from new concepts and approaches, object-centred research is unravelling the complex social relations surrounding the formation, development, use, and exhibition of museum collections in the 19th through to 21st centuries. Case studies will analyse the relative valuing of various types of collections (e.g., ethnographic, archaeology, art, natural history) within a broad set of contexts ranging from field collection, exhibition, exchanges, transfers and repatriation.

Are there hierarchies of value in the way museums categorise objects and display ethnographic collections? How do these resonate today? One instance might be the shifting of artefact categories between art and the craft of the everyday. We explore exchange in context and through time - for example, exchanges of cultural objects for natural history; or use of duplicate specimens as currency to diversify collections. We invite papers that examine different concepts of value in museum collections.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


A market for museums or the path followed by a modern art collection. Buenos Aires 1956-1960

Author: Talia Bermejo (National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET)) email

Short abstract

This paper analyses the partnership between museum and market focusing on the points of contact and exchange in the validation processes of contemporary art in both symbolic and monetary terms, and their consequences in the subsequent formation of the institution's art collection.

Long abstract

The Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires opened in April 1956. Under the direction of Argentine critic Rafael Squirru, the country thus witnessed the creation of the firstsuch institution. Nevertheless, the museum had no home, no patrimony and just a meagre budget. In fact, the institutional collection took shapeover several years, and only had its own space thirty years later. This paper seeks to analyse the first actions in an institutional narrative starting with articulation with other facets of art and, particularly, with the art market. I shall discuss key strategies, such as partnerships with certain commercial galleries that operated as alternative spaces for art exhibitions in the period from the opening of the museum to the inauguration of its first home in 1960. This partnership with several prestigious art dealers in the city not only focused attention on the museum, but also opened a channel through which to set artistic and commercial values in a kind of agreement between the institution and market actors. This occurred in an expanding local market, meaning that the practices employed by the museum to evolve in a context of adversity (no fixed home, budget or patrimony) were additional to contemporary artistic circulation. Using that ad hoc partnership as a basis, I intend to analyse points of contact and exchange in the validation processes of contemporaryart in both symbolic and monetary terms, and their consequences in the subsequent formation of the institution's artcollection.

The Value of the Berndt's Flour BinThe rediscovery of Indigenous Australian cultural objects collected before 1948 by Ronald and Catherine Berndt in a Flour Bin will be the focus of changing values ov

Author: Louise Hamby (Australian National University) email

Short abstract

The rediscovery of Indigenous Australian cultural objects collected before 1948 by Ronald and Catherine Berndt in a Flour Bin will be the focus of changing values over time.

Long abstract

When new discoveries are made in the anthropological world they are often marked with great excitement such as King Tutankhamun's tomb. Within Australia and in the museum anthropological world intriguing discoveries are still made that make the anthropologist's heart sing. One example was the discovery of a tin trunk belonging to Ursula McConnel, discovered and brought to the attention of the South Australian Museum in 2006. It contained a trove of photographs, notes and letters. The most recent discovery in 2016 with analogies to the tin trunk is the Flour Bin in Perth, belonging to the anthropologist Ronald and Catherine Berndt.

This large metal bin and its contents has had changing values since its original purpose in Arnhem Land to hold flour to be sold to the community of Yirrkala. The newly discovered Flour Bin with its diverse collection of items from the desert and Arnhem Land is like a Pandora's box. Curiosity was the impetus to open the classical Pandora's Box as well as the Flour Bin. The flour bin came into the possession of the Berndts' on one of their trips to Yirrkala and was subsequently used to transport larger carved sculptures back to Perth. At some point after its arrival to Perth it was repacked with over 100 objects concealed by a deep layer of children's manuscripts. The investigation of items will hopefully reverse any ill effects from the Pandora syndrome and will bring about a new set of values for the old material.

Destroy to Save. Objects selection and value hierarchy in a national film archive

Authors: Paola Juan email
Sélima Chibout email

Short abstract

This paper relies on a fieldwork research ‎at a national film archive. The profusion of collection objects, financial and space constraints lead archivists to a severe selection. According to which values do they preserve or destroy heritage artefacts? How are these objects devalued and revalued?

Long abstract

"The national film archive's history has built itself as the history of the struggle against destruction". (Vincent, cinema historian and contributor to this archive)

This paper will rely on a research jointly led with Sélima Chibout ‎at a national film archive from October 2015 to May 2016 (participatory observation and in-depth interviews). This national film archive has been built by collecting the production of waste engendered by the cinema industry: left-over films, flyers, posters, machines… The monetary value of these artefacts is extremely volatile.

This institution works to preserve "cinema" as heritage. Preserving is a fight against time, against the inexorable destiny of every object: to become waste. But "cinema" is an abstract concept, which may include or exclude numbers of material items. This ideal is confronted to reality: the profusion of collection objects has to be managed, and archivists are today compelled to sort out and throw away elements of the collection. "To save, we need to discard" (Frank, archivist at the film archive).

According to which criteria (affective, administrative, patrimonial, political, financial, aesthetic, historic) do archivists choose to preserve or destroy collection objects? In other words, which values are brought forward in the process of creating a collective memory - and thus selecting some parts of heritage to forget about? Which value hierarchy is prioritized in the constant move of artefacts inside and outside of the film archive, through processes of active conservation, exchange with other institutions, classification and throwing away of objects?

Appraising collections: understanding institutional values of the Sir William MacGregor collection and their impact

Author: Chantal Knowles (Queensland Museum) email

Short abstract

Museums research, display, acquire and dispose of artefacts through frameworks which determine value and significance. This paper explores the appraisal of a shared collection to choose artefacts for repatriation. Did the value judgements made determine the future trajectory of artefacts?

Long abstract

Through a review of the process of determining which artefacts from the Sir William MacGregor Collection were returned from the Queensland Museum to the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea regimes of value are explored. This paper seeks to understand why certain objects were returned and others left on the shelf and determine how value is influenced at a local level through cultural frameworks and collections strategies. The re-appraisal of the collection and decisions made about disposal and acquisition involved a value judgement predicated on significance, when re-evaluated by an another institution were significance criteria the same?

This case study which documents the subsequent use and consumption of specific artefacts within the museum space allows an examination of whether museum criteria of value resonate amongst museum audiences and the market place. Do these correlate with the value of the objects as determined at their time of collection and if not which artefacts have depreciated or accrued value over time? Does the artefacts association with MacGregor affect value within these multiple spaces? Through documenting the shared and multiple trajectories of MacGregor collection artefacts, historical and contemporary assertions of value are reviewed and the limitations of museum value systems highlighted and challenged.

Museum Objects as a Currency of Cultural Exchange

Author: Zachary Kingdon (National Museums, Liverpool) email

Short abstract

This paper contextualizes the acquisition of an assemblage of artefacts acquired by exchange and donation from West African elites for institutions in northwest England between 1894 and 1916, through a Liverpool steam ship engineer Arnold Ridyard.

Long abstract

While the Ridyard assemblage can be viewed as part of the accumulative project of Empire, Ridyard's collecting practices were shaped by the steamers' dynamic capacity to connect up widely separated people and places. As a chief engineer, Ridyard kept his ship moving from place to place along Africa's Atlantic coast, but he also acted as unofficial postman to many of his contacts on the coast, who entrusted him with money, letters, and other things. In return Ridyard received gifts for museums. Many of Ridyard's contacts were West African elites who gave him African artefacts in exchange for British cultural materials, such as newspapers and illustrated magazines, or for particular services. This paper will contextualize the items in Ridyard's museum assemblage as a currency of cultural exchange and imperial accumulation within an informal economy of gift-giving and favours, facilitated by Ridyard's credentials as a trusted intermediary and his ability to connect widely separated people and places.

The enigma of liku (Fijian fibre skirts) in museums: trade, translation and reconsideration

Author: Karen Jacobs (University of East Anglia ) email

Short abstract

This paper analyses misunderstandings surrounding liku fibre skirts worn by 19th century Fijian women. Liku were exchange items resulting in their abundance in museums from where they were exchanged further. Each exchange led to a revaluation of liku and a new translation in the museum catalogue.

Long abstract

Liku, fibre skirts worn by indigenous Fijian women in the 19th century, now only exist in museum collections (mainly outside Fiji). Their abundance in museums is a result of their status as important exchange items in Fiji as liku were presented during solevu gift presentations and to secure bonds. Liku were also external markers readily understood by Fijians - indicating the wearer was tattooed, (un)married, a mother or of high status. However, once the female wearer entered non-Fijian written records, she was subject to the gaze of others who often misread her liku. Liku were therefore classified in museums as 'belt', 'waist band', and even 'necklace'. Once in museums, these liku lost their close connection to female bodies, but were treated as objects, a large number of which was identified as 'duplicate'. By embracing the concept of 'duplicate' it is implied that there are many examples of the same type, but an overview of liku museum collections demonstrates an enormous variety. From the mid-19th century, a large number of 'duplicate' liku in the Smithsonian Institution and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology were regularly exchanged with other museums. Each exchange led to a revaluation of liku and a different translation in the museum catalogue. Most recently, seven women of Fijian heritage (two curators and five artists) have drawn on liku in museums to produce new artworks and exhibitions showing how these understudied garments in museum stores remain at the core of new networks and reassessments.

Collections, Science & Politics: Distributing Duplicate Anthropological Specimens at the Smithsonian Institution

Author: Catherine Nichols (Loyola University Chicago) email

Short abstract

Analysis of the Smithsonian Institution's program of distributing duplicate anthropological specimens to educational institutions in the United States examines how objects acquire value(s) within the intersection of systems of knowledge production and political patronage.

Long abstract

At its height in the late nineteenth century, the specimen exchange industry required museums to maintain stocks of duplicate specimens for trade. In addition to specimen-for-specimen exchanges, the Smithsonian Institution undertook an ambitious program of distributing duplicate specimens to regional and local museums, public libraries, and primary schools throughout the United States. Educational organizations seeking to increase the size and diversity of their collections were required to petition their political representatives in the U.S. Congress, who would forward the request to the Smithsonian Secretary. Politicians were copied on the relevant correspondence as the Smithsonian worked to fulfill each application.

This paper surveys a temporal range (1880-1930) of this type of transaction, all of which involve the distribution of duplicate specimens from the Smithsonian's anthropological collection. Normative specimen exchange practice employs the use of a common value register (economic value) to ensure exchange equivalence. Smithsonian distributions use similar classification criteria and organizational procedures as specimen exchange, but discount the use of market value. Using archival correspondence and museum records, I demonstrate that the value of duplicate specimens was imbedded, at least discursively, in opaque systems of political patronage and favors, and financial appropriations. As a whole, specimen exchange and distribution function as parallel and overlapping systems in which museum objects acquire value(s) situationally. I consider the intersection of science and politics to extend analyses of the diverse contexts of value acquisition, while emphasizing the relational nature of anthropological objects.

Foundry or museum: the price of the past

Author: Elisabete Pereira (New University of Lisbon ) email

Short abstract

This paper addresses the importance of money in the production of knowledge about the past, focussing on the trajectory of various objects of archaic jewellery dating from the late Bronze Age: gold collars and bracelets, appearing in Portugal in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Long abstract

Most objects that make up the archaeological collections of museums are not attributed any monetary value until such time as they are validated scientifically. However, archaeological collections may feature objects that have a high monetary value due to the precious metals they are made of, in particular gold. While they are regarded as having been scientifically validated both by those responsible for organising museum collections or private collectors, they also represented a stock of value for their owners and therefore were more often melted down and the gold sold than preserved as museum exhibits. Mostly from the late nineteenth century, some of these objects were gradually acquired by museums, becoming part of the memory of the nations that had the economic resources to make them part of the knowledge production process. The gold objects referred to in this paper, currently housed at the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (National Archaeological Museum) in Portugal, France's Musée d'Archeologie National and the British Museum in the UK, were preserved by individuals with an awareness that their scientific value gave them greater economic value.

The trajectory of these objects highlights the heterogeneous nature of the network of actors and sites that channelled objects to museums, from shepherds and children that found this objects in the fields to actors associated with the trade, as dealers, auctioneers or goldsmiths, or institutional actors as museums.

Pots and Patterns: transacting values in British New Guinea.

Author: Elizabeth Bonshek (Museum Victoria) email

Short abstract

What hierarchies of value are reflected in Sir William MacGregor's collection of clay pots in British New Guinea in the late 1800s? How might indigenous values be read at the sites of their acquisition, and what social relationships are reflected in the transaction of these pots and patterns?

Long abstract

How are the hierarchies of value that inhabited the domain of the nineteenth century museum reflected in the acquisition of ceramic pots collected by Sir William MacGregor in British New Guinea during the late 1800s? What values were activated at the site of collection of these objects and were they commensurate with contemporary theories of material culture studies? Or do the transactions undertaken to acquire examples of material culture rather reflect more about the social relationships of the parties involved than about a contemporary theory of objects.

This paper traces the acquisition of a collection of pots from the north coast of Papua, and examines the multiple, and sometimes contradictory, interpretations of their worth from the perspective of the colonial explorer and investigates the possibilities for speculation upon the indigenous agency in the transactions that were at the forefront of a number of first contacts.

Far from home: realms of value established for a Torres Strait Saibai Mawa mask

Author: Jude Philp (University of Sydney) email

Short abstract

In 2015 a mask relating to Saibai Islanders' Mawa ceremonies was sold through Christies (Paris) for € 1,665,500 – making it the most expensive Oceanic mask ever sold at auction. In this paper I explore the linked regimes of value that I believe made this possible: pre-colonial cultural creation; museum acquisition; collector hierarchies and aesthetic worth based on European art categories.

Long abstract

When Torres Strait Islanders became involved in the marine industries and international commerce that bloomed in their region from the 1860s, yearly crop cycles were marked by a ceremony identified today as Mawa. These ceremonies centred on the ripening of the wongai (wild plum) fruit. Similar ceremonial events in neighbouring islands and coast of New Guinea were essential for maintaining the relationships through which Saibai were able to obtain and trade socially valued drums and canoe hulls, as essential to Islanders across the Strait as were the valued shell products exchanged with their trade partners.

In 2015 a mask associated with this harvest-season tradition was sold through Christies (Paris) for € 1,665,500 – making it the most expensive Oceanic mask ever sold at auction. In this paper I explore the inter-dependent regimes of value that Christies used in creating the auction price: pre-colonial cultural creation; anthropological or museum acquisition; collector hierarchies and aesthetic worth based on European art categories.

Keg No 5: Bird Collecting and the Value of Specimens from the US North Pacific Expedition (1853-56)

Author: Joshua A. Bell (National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution) email

Short abstract

This paper examines the bird specimens collected during the US North Pacific Expedition (1853-56) at the Smithsonian Institution. Interrogating archival records and the specimens, I elucidate the agencies involved in their collecting, and their valuation as specimens and as currency of exchange.

Long abstract

Within this paper I examine bird specimens collected by Lt. Van Wyck in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea and the wider Pacific during the US North Pacific Expedition (1853-56). While Lt. Van Wyck went missing when his ship the US Brig Porpoise disappeared on its homeward voyage, the numerous bird specimens he collected survived on another naval vessel and came to the Smithsonian Institution in Keg Number 5. Interrogating the US North Pacific's surviving archival records and Lt Van Wyck's specimens themselves, I seek to elucidate the human and nonhuman agencies involved in their collecting. Discussing their trajectories once at the Smithsonian I track out the various purifications around the specimens that subsequently ensued. Doing so, I highlight the hidden labor of science, and the valuation of natural history specimens from New Guinea and the Pacific as type specimens and as currency of exchange in the Smithsonian during the 19th century.

Gifting, Barter, and Auctions: Currencies in the Biography of a 19th Century Ethnographic Collection from Papua New Guinea

Author: Robin Torrence (Australian Museum) email

Short abstract

Between 1888-1898 Sir William MacGregor orchestrated the collection of over 15,000 cultural objects from British New Guinea. Tracing their biographies from villages into museums highlights the variety of social and economic currencies that underpin current ethnographic collections.

Long abstract

In the decade 1888-1898 Sir William MacGregor, Administrator and later Governor, orchestrated the collection of over 15,000 cultural objects from British New Guinea. A significant proportion can now be traced to ethnographic collections widely dispersed throughout the former British Empire. Constructing a biography for the items exchanged multiple times as they moved from their original owners to the museums where they are now held highlights how mostly ordinary, everyday items became currencies within a wide range of social and economic contexts.

Within cross-cultural interactions within British New Guinea objects were gifted, bartered, and stolen. Once transferred into a Western economic setting, the material was further gifted strategically, exchanged as 'duplicates,' and sold in commercial contexts both by individuals and institutions. The management practices of the multiple museums enmeshed in this century-long networked biography reveal differing attitudes toward ethnography including cultural object, art, or specimen.

The wide variety of ways that ethnographic collections were used as currency to sustain cultural values, strengthen personal ties, re-enforce self-identity and support nation building are also highlighted within the biography of the MacGregor field collection.

Museum exchange and the role of the 'duplicate': Kew and the trade in biocultural objects

Authors: Caroline Cornish (Royal Holloway, University of London) email
Felix Driver (Royal Holloway, University of London) email

Short abstract

Kew's Museum of Economic Botany (1847-1987) played a major role in the acquisition and dispersal of botanical specimens and artefacts, exchanging with museums around the world. The paper will focus on the role of exchanges, especially of 'duplicates', in shaping the museum's collection and networks.

Long abstract

The Museum of Economic Botany (1847-1987) at Kew Gardens collected and displayed objects demonstrating human uses of plants. The result was a heterogeneous collection including plant specimens, plant derivatives, and artefacts, both hand- and machine-made. Such 'economic' collections―crossing between nature and culture― were integral to the imperial project. Today they are referred to as 'biocultural' collections.

Like the Kew Herbarium, whose collecting and exchange practices it emulated, the Kew Museum became a centre for the redistribution of plant-based objects through an extended museum network encompassing collections of natural history, technology, ethnography, archaeology and art. In this paper we focus on the role of inter-museum transfers, especially in the context of 'duplicate' exchange. Drawing on objects and archival sources at Kew and elsewhere, we analyse how value was established through the process of 'equivalencing' across a diverse range of objects.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.