Museum exhibition asks, ‘Why do we collect?’

A new collector-focused exhibition at the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton, Ohio, aims to answer the question, “Why do we collect?”

Opened in July and on display until mid-January, the exhibition features 30 “ordinary objects,” according to the museum’s Executive Director Kim Kenney, accompanied by stories from their donors regarding why they’re special and worth collecting. Throughout the display, the objects inspire viewers to consider several collector-related behaviours, including why individual people and museums collect, how items should be cared for and authenticated plus how collectors assign meaning to material objects and the psychology behind collecting.

“We have two cases in this exhibition that focus on President McKinley,” said Kenney, referencing the museum’s namesake, William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, who served from 1897 until his assassination in 1901. “One of the artifacts I wanted to point out for you today is this broken cane.”

The cane – shown alongside several contemporary coins – is broken “on purpose,” Kenney added.

“The family story goes that McKinley was with the photographer and his cane broke, and he handed it to the photographer, who kept it and passed it down through his family.”

To illustrate the process of conservation in museums, two of First Lady Ida McKinley’s gowns are also displayed alongside detailed information about the conservation treatment they received to stabilize them.

The exhibition also explores how museums collect “history in the making,” Kenney said, with a selection of COVID-19-related items collected by the staff in their daily lives.

Another section of the exhibition explores the evolution of lighting devices and telephones to explain how museums document everyday life over time.

 

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