The Find-me-another machine (On Search)

The Find-me-another machine (On Search)

specimen[my presentation at the RISD Museum / Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology “On Search” Conference]

I’d like to tell you about the new machine I just invented. It’s called the “find me another” machine. The portable version I brought with me happens to be just the right size for the objects we’ve heard about today.

Here’s how it works. First, you set some sliding switches on the front of the machine. And then you take an object – a Maori feather box, say,or the mocassins – and drop it in the slot on the top of the machine. Don’t worry – it won’t hurt the objects – it’s a machine that works on metaphor and meaning, not on physicality. Still, it makes a lot of noise, and mabe a little smoke, and after a few minutes, out of the bottom of the machine comes both your original object (nicely conserved) and the accession number of another object that’s like it.

That’s why it’s called a “find me another” machine.

But it often links us to some surprising objects. You drop in the feather box, and you might get a piece of wood about that size, an actual box made out of feathers, another object from the same place, or from the same date but from somewhere else in the world. You might get, in 1890 version of the machine, an object that represents the same degree of technological advancement or social evolution but from a different part of the world. You might get another carved object, but from New Guinea. You might get someething collected by the same collector, or the same color, or having the same use in another culture. You might get Kate’s mocassins.

And it’s not that the machine is broken. These are are objects that are like Thierry’s feather box. They’re just like it in different ways. And it turns out that there are many ways that things can be like Theirry’s feather box, or Kate’s mocassins.

That’s why there are switches on the front of the machine. You can set them. Some of the setting are pretty straightforward – which means they’re the ones we’re used to thinking about. If you’re an anthropology museum, you set the “use” slider all the way to the right, and maybe the “meaning” slider too. At the art museum, they set the “appearance” slider to high, and the “use” slider to low. Some departments in the RISD Museum sets the “material” slider and the “technique” slider to high, some don’t.

There’s a meta-version of the machine that is lot larger – you dump in your entire collection, or an entire exhibit, and it sets the sliders for you. That way, when you put in a new object, it finds things that are like your object, using a definition of like that is defined just for you. That way, you can keep building the collections or making your exhibits in the same way.

My find-me-another machine has two inspirations. The most peculiar one is an 1866 Atlantic Monthly story – a fictional story – about a Civil War veteran who had his arms and legs amputated during the war. He goes to a séance where the medium calls forth the spirit of his legs – who make their presence known by rapping out, as spirits do, a message. What do they rap out? their accession number at the Army Medical Museum! (My thanks to Ashley Bowen-Murphy for calling this to my attention.)

Deborah Diamente, head registrar at the RISD Museum, is the second source of inspiration for the find-me-another machine. She came to my class earlier this week to talk about registrarial work. She described the practical advantages of treating the museum collection management system as the center of museum work – a central place for all of the data about the collections. Not just the traditional ways that curators describe them, but also the story of their life in the museum, all brought together in one place. The CMS, in this vision, joins the several life histories of objects – their life before the museum, which is what the curator traditionally focuses on, and their life in the museum, whichis what the registrar traditionally focuses on.

An inclusive CMS is a step toward overcoming that divide – saying that objects have a life that has two parts, but connected, and that the way we think about the first part, in the wild, is shaped by the second half of their life, in the museum.

An inclusive CMS, sith a really clever search engine, is the secret power behind my find-me-another machine. It’s what lets us set those switches, what lets us think about an inclusive life history of artifacts.

My find-me-another machine is the next generation of search engine, or a metaphor for what a search engine might be. Thierry and Kate have discovered so much story for the objects they’ve talked about today. At one point, museums would have been happy to know where something came from, its original maker, its first use. What they’ve made clear is that there’s so much more that’s interesting.

They’ve found information that we ought to be able to search for, or, using my find-me-another machine metaphor, that we ought to be able to set a slider for, to say, we want to be able to search for things for similar paths not only in their use life, but in their museum life. We should be able to search for questions like:

  • Where have these objects been?
  • Who have they been with? What was the relationship with those objects?
  • Who decided that they should be together in that exhibit, or storeroom?
  • What’s been said about them, and by whom? That is, how have they been described, and how have they been named – what categories are they in? What systems of categories have they been in?

Let me end by bringing another object into the discussion. Another set of objects, actually. In the summer of 1855, John Whipple Potter Jenks, then a school master in Middleboro, Massachusetts, later the curator of Brown’s natural history museum, caught about 400 mice and sent them to the Smithsonian. Spencer Baird, curator there, was working on a book on the mammals of North America, and men like Jenks sent in thousands of mice and other animals from across the continent.

I went to visit the mice this summer. Not at the Smithsonian, but at Harvard, at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. There are about 100 of them there. There are about 200 at the Smithsonian. And there are Jenks mice all over the country, sent for research projects, or as part of sets of mice species that the Smithsonian supplied to universities and museums. The mice have had quite an adventure over the past 160 years.

Like the mice, many museum objects have had quite an adventure. They have had adventures that shape how we look at them, how we think about them, how we think about objects like them.

So what happens when I put the mice into my find-me-another machine? On the one hand, they’re just mice; I should get more mice out. But like the mocassins and the feather box, they can be like other things. They can tell us stories of connections, across the continent, across the natural history musuem, across nature, even across cultures. We should think about what kind of find-me-another machine – excuse, what kind of search engine, what kind of collections management system – will help us tell those stories.

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