Museum objects in movement

Project in collaboration with the Department of Geography and the Centre for the GeoHumanities, Royal Holloway, University of London (Prof Felix Driver, Dr Caroline Cornish)

Despite their illusory condition of immobility, museum objects represent the meeting point of a wide bundle of itineraries, each of which has enriched them in meaning and, therefore, narrative potential through time. The mobility perspective allows us to read these itineraries and circulations as main components of the value of objects and to better understand the complexity of the role they play for their heritage communities.

Among the numerous kinds of movement that can involve museum objects, the basic one concerns the trajectories objects have followed from their production places to the collection seat itself, their main stages, the actors involved, the reasons behind them, the techniques, materials, and representations. Mobility is a defining characteristic in the life and history of objects. The point of origin of an object’s trajectory, however, coincides with the destination point of the trajectories traced by the commodity chains of its material components, and connections between unexpectedly distant places are revealed, together with the historical roots of contemporary topics like the object’s environmental and social sustainability.

Objects also trace spatial trajectories in relation to their use in different practices and places. Thinking of science and geography museum collections, for instance, instruments might have known a mobile outdoor life related to fieldwork-based research, either in specific location or widely spread. In such a context, the reconstruction of the instruments’ itineraries might allow us to compose different heritage expressions into a coherent mobility-based system, both tangible (instruments, photographs, documents, maps, etc.) and intangible (research output, practices of knowledge construction and research documentation, teaching habits, etc.). Moreover, focusing on the life of plants, botanical, and ethnobotanical collections in terms of the mobility/immobility turn means to look at their “life cycle” through a different conceptual and theoretical lens.

The meaning of objects is also frequently affected by shifts and changes. Although this can appear a metaphorical application of the mobility paradigm, such a shift in the meaning of an object is often related to its physical transfer and the consequent change of its perception and/or use by new subjects. Vice versa, sometimes the transfer itself represents the evidence of a change of significance for the person or community dealing with it.

The Covid-19 emergency is multiplying the number of museum objects involved in another kind of mobility: digitized and shared online, narrated through virtual tours and podcasts, they are moving creatively from Museum platforms to people’s digital devices and therefore potentially towards everywhere and everyone. Tracing their movements along the ramifications of the WWW would represent an extremely interesting investigation under several points of view.

Thanks to the Museum of Geography and the Botanical Garden of the University of Padova, we bring together different traditions and fields of studies, such as museum studies, history of science, historical geography, and material culture history. In our research project we aim at deepening the multilayered concepts connected to the idea of museum objects’ mobility. On the one hand, we follow different “things” through their uses, itineraries, trajectories and circulations in space and time. On the other hand, we focus on the theoretical implications connected to the general idea of mobility of objects in museums.

Coordinated by:

Elena Canadelli

Chiara Gallanti

Mauro Varotto