Contextual identity refers to the relations between the object and its
environment. In the present model context is seen as important aspect of the
information structure of objects. In museological literature emphasis is on
the 'museological context', i.e. the context of the object as museum object.
In order to understand the object as data carrier it is necessary to have a
model of the contextual relations before 'musealisation'. Such modes do exist
in the fields of archaeology, material culture studies and ecology, but they
should be adapted to the needs of museology.
Contexts can be defined as the specific 'planes' on which the environment,
and the sets of relations that construct and are experienced within those
environments, are encountered (Gavanagh 1990: 79). A context can be described
as a system, having two 'dimensions': a material (physical) and a conceptual
one. As conceptual system, context can be understood as 'discursive field'
(Buchloh 1991). As to material context, the position of an object can be
defined spatially ('stand') and functionally ('niche'). Also the distinction
between micro and macro context can be useful, but the borderline between the
two can only be arbitrary. Susan Pearce describes micro context as 'the cubic
metre of the object's immediate environment' (Pearce 1986: 199).
A material micro-context may consist of closely related objects intended
to form a whole. The term artefact set (ensemble) will be used here for that
(limited) number of objects that are intentionally connected, like a painting
and its frame, a diner service, a violin and bow, etc. Sometimes a material
macro (or meso) context may also be considered as an artifact set with a
certain degree of autonomy, like a palace, work shop, etc.
Some objects show a great mobility within their context. A context with a
high degree of mobility of its components might be called a dynamic context
(or dynamic artefact set). Another form of dynamism is the inflow and
outflow of objects. As a result the composition of a certain artefact set can
change continuously (instable context/artefact set), while at the same
time other sets stay intact for a very long period (stable
Increasing interest in the contextual level of the information content of
objects has lead to an ecological approach in museology. Methodologically
there are two approaches: autecological and synecological. In the
autecological approach the consideration starts from one object and the
relations of that object with its environment is studied. In the synecological
approach the consideration starts from the whole, the cluster, the context.
From the synecological point of view a group of objects can be considered as
object sensu latiore.
Three basic contexts
In archive administration distinction is made between registry and archive
(Dictionary of Archival Terminology, 1984). Records regularly used for
the day-to-day affairs of an agency, institution or organisation are called
current records or active records. These records are maintained in their place
or origin and administered by the registry. After a certain period of time
(retention period), usually based upon the estimated frequency of present and
future use, the records are transferred to an archive or disposed of.
Sometimes there is an intermediate stage, called record centre, where
'non-current' records are temporary deposited. After appraisal the records are
either disposed of or transferred to an archive where they are made available
for research and (other) cultural use.
A similar distinction can be made for the museological field as a whole.
Several authors have described the initial context in which the object has a
use value and an economic value as primary context (Ennenbach 1983: 86;
Klein & Wusthoff-Schafer 1990: 11; Cannon-Brookes 1979). This context has
also been described as functional context ('Okotypische Zusammenhang',
Treinen 1974: 23) and systemic context (Schiffer 1976). In Dutch
archive terminology this period in the biography of records is called
dynamic period ('dynamische periode').
The primary context stands for an ongoing cultural system. The object can
be defined as commodity (Kopytoff 1986: 68). A commodity is a thing
that has use value and that can be exchanged in a discrete transaction for a
counterpart. The exchange can be direct or it can be achieved indirectly by
way of money. Usually, especially in the western world, money is used as a
means of exchange, so a commodity might also be defined on the basis of its
saleability. Notable exceptions are gifts where the object is exchanged
against an immaterial favour. From a synecological point of view the primary
context is defined by the functions: production (procurement, manufacture,
preparation, creation), exploitation (use, consumption) and maintenance. In
connection with these functions, distinction can be made between production
context and functional context. In addition temporary
deposit might be mentioned as third type of subcontext.
The Swedish SAMDOK organisation divides the primary context into eleven
distinct sub-contexts (called 'pools'), based on existing classifications of
economic activities: agricultural pool, metals pool, timber and paper pool,
food pool, textiles pool, construction pool, trade pool, communications pool,
services pool, public administration pool, and homes pool (Rosander ed. 1980).
Following the system as developed by SAMDOK, Gavanagh distinguishes between
four contexts: home and personal, work, public, and commercial (Gavanagh 1990:
79). From a autecological point of view these contexts are functional &
conceptual & macro contexts. On this level they serve as a general frame
of reference rather than as contextual definition of an individual object.
Kopytoff describes another approach to the classification of the primary
context, based on 'sphere of exchange' (Kopytoff 1986: 71). One may, for
example, distinguish between the sphere of subsistence items (food, utensils,
tools), the sphere of prestige items, and the sphere of rights-in-people.
These three spheres represent three separate universes of exchange values.
Items within each are exchangeable, and each is ruled by its own kind of
The second basic context is the context in which, after a process of
selection, the object has acquired a documentary value (secondary
context, Ennenbach 1983: 86; Klein & Wusthoffer-Schafer 1990: 11).
This context can be equalled with Gluzinski's museodomain, defined as an
integrated system of symbolising and communicative behaviours and its
creations (Gluzinski 1980). This is a much wider notion than the museum as
institutional context. Therefore, the term museological context will be
preferred here. It includes Cannon-Brookes' secondary (private
collections, palaces and country houses) as well as tertiary
environment (museums) (Cannon-Brookes 1979). It extends to in situ
preservation. Foremost, the museological context is a conceptual context, and
as such a mental institution (B.Wyss [note 1]).
The third basic context can be referred to as archaeological context. In
general this context refers to the non-behavioural state of cultural materials
(Schiffer 1976). It can be understood as a form of temporary or permanent
deposit of discarded objects. Usually the term refers to objects in the
ground, but - as conceptual contexts - attics, cellars, sheds may also be
considered as archaeological contexts. In that case it is necessary to
indicate whether, from a synecological point of view, temporary deposit is
considered part of the primary context or belongs to the archaeological
A group of objects (artefact set) is the result of accumulation processes.
Accumulation is related to context transforms. In archive administration
accumulation within the primary context is called 'natural' accumulation as
distinct from artificial accumulation which is the result of transforms from
the primary context to the museological (museum) context. A natural
accumulation of objects can, for example, be found in households where the
activities of the members of the household lead to the inflow (and outflow) of
objects. Such accumulation is not just a random collection. In general an
artefact set has a certain composition and arrangement, or, in museological
terms, a structural and a functional identity. This identity is the reflection
of norms, values, activities, etc. of one person or a group of persons (i.e.
the conceptual context). Furnishing arrangements, for example, are virtually
inseparable from lifestyle; one creates the other, and one is mirrored in the
other. According to Seale arrangements and uses of furnishings represent
periods in history even more accurately than do the furnishings themselves
Occasionally natural accumulated artefact sets are fossilised, and -
depending taphonomic processes - preserved in the archaeological context.
Museums may acquire artefact sets as documents of certain natural accumulation
processes, but being the result of artificial accumulation, the museum
collection itself is an artefact set with a certain identity (a conceptual, as
well as a structural and functional identity).
Michael Thompson's Rubbish Theory is based on the recognition of
three categories to which objects can be assigned to and of the controlled
transfers between them (Thompson 1979). These 'cognitive categories' coincide
partly with the conceptual dimensions of the three contexts described above:
transient (primary context), rubbish (archaeological context), and durable
(partly primary, partly museological context). The categories are not
determined by intrinsic physical ('natural') properties, but by the social
system, i.e. on the basis of the socially perceived identity. Transient
objects are characterised by decreasing economic value. Rubbish has no value.
Durable objects are characterised by increasing economic value. Thompson
relates the transient and durable state of being to the 'region of fixed
assumptions', where the category membership of an object determines the way we
act towards it, whereas rubbish is related to the 'region of flexibility', a
state of indeterminacy where action determines category membership. According
to the Rubbish Theory transient objects have to pass through the rubbish state
of being to become durable. In terms of René Thom's Catastrophe Theory
a 'cognitive category' or context is a morphogenetic field ('chreod'), an
island of determinism in an ocean of indeterminacy. Each context transfer is a
passage through a moment of indeterminacy.
One way to look at objects and their 'behaviour' within the primary
context is elaborated by Appadurai and Kopytoff (Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff
1986). Key concept in their model is the object as commodity, briefly defined
as any thing intended for exchange. Being a commodity is a phase in the social
life of objects. Some objects are commodities by destination, that is,
intended by their producers principally for exchange; other are commodities by
metamorphosis or by diversion, that is, placed into the commodity state though
originally not intended for this. The commodity state is related to context
transforms. Context transform means that an object is moved into and out of
the commodity state (described as commoditization).
Each change in the social unit of use or the activity of use involves a
re-assessment of the value of the object. At the moment of re-assessment the
commodity status of objects becomes manifest. Most of the time, however, when
the commodity is effectively out of the commodity sphere (i.e. when it is
used), its status is inevitably ambiguous and open to the push and pull of
events and desires. From an autecological point of view functional degradation
involves de-stabilising the position of the artefact in its context.
Re-assessment may involve re-use (PP-transform) or the removal from active use
in a given context by discarding (PA-transform) or by preserving
The life histories of objects can be described as a process of
commoditization - de-commoditization - re-commoditization. In an ongoing
cultural system objects are transformed through successive contexts. They may
persist through numerous system states by changes in use and significance, and
by transfers from one individual owner/user to another.
The usual sequence is: workshop/factory - shop - user. Sometimes the life
history is more complicated, for instance when the object is sold by the first
owner and re-used by a second one: workshop/factory - shop - user 1 - shop -
user 2, etc. Between use and re-use there might be a period of 'temporary
deposit' (transitional context). In ordinary households this might be the shed
or attic. For certain objects this might be of cyclical nature. The object is
physically out of focus and ideologically in limbo (Thompson 1979). Quite
often the object formally has to be re-activated or brought to life again
after a period of seclusion. Of course, there might be a difference between
what people consider to be an ideal career of a category of objects, and the
actual biography of an individual object. Whereas a sociologist, or 'material
culturist', might focus on the ideal career of objects, from a museological
point of view the actual biography of the individual objects is more
Each PP-transform means the prolongation of the social life of the object.
It stays within the primary context, there is a certain functional pertinence.
There are, however, different kinds of PP-transforms: recycling, secondary use
and lateral cycling (Schiffer 1976: 38-39). Recycling involves the adaptation
of the object and the use of (parts of) the object for the production of a new
artefact. Often, there is no need for extensive modification to make an object
suitable for its new use. This type of process is termed secondary use.
Lateral cycling occurs when an object is transferred from one user to another.
Lateral cycling differs from recycling and secondary use in that no change in
the object (as in recycling) or its use (as in secondary use) occurs, although
some repair or maintenance may take place between episodes of use.
Fitch mentions some reasons for PP-transforms: saving time and energy
(labour costs for the design and actual production of new artefacts), saving
natural and human energy invested in materials and artisanship, and saving
kinetic energy of construction and the fuel required (Fitch 1982: 30). There
is, however, a category of objects that have a high survival value because of
a 'decorative, aesthetic strength' which makes an object 'trans-historic'. Its
original significance may erode, but not its specific potential to draw
attention (Mertens 1981). The 'trans-historic' character of objects is
accelerated or enhanced by placing objects in unlikely contexts, i.e. contexts
that are opposed to the primary function of the objects. This usually is a
critical phase in which a shift from use value to 'cultural' (documentary,
symbolic) value becomes manifest. Such objects belong to the category of
durable objects as opposed to transient objects which have a low survival
Transient and durable objects may be related to
Kopytoff's distinction between commodity spheres. Kopytoff distinguishes
between different sphere of exchange within the primary context (Kopytoff
1986: 71). There might exist a moral hierarchy among the spheres. Durable
objects belong to the highest moral hierarchy. Transient objects can be
converted 'upward'. Converting 'downward' might be considered as
Discard means the deliberate removal from the ongoing cultural systems (PA
transforms). Usually this is the result of functional degradation. Special PA
transforms involve ritual destruction.
In general discard involves the social death of the object (it is
decommoditized), but not always its physical death. Often it remains as
a physical entity, as potential source of information, realised through
excavation. In palaeontology and archaeology much attention is being paid to
the information loss during PA- (and AA-) transforms. This has led to a
special field of study, called taphonomy (Lawrence 1968). Taphonomy is
the detailed study of the transition of (animal) remains from the biosphere
into the lithosphere (described here as PA-transforms) and thus explores post
mortem relations between organic remains and their external environment.
Usually AA-transforms are also included in taphonomic studies. In this case
the term biostratinomy is used for the study of the environmental effect upon
organic remains between the death of animals and their final burial. The term
diagenesis is used to describe chemical and physical processes acting upon
(organic) remains after their burial. Diagenesis is usually considered to be
part of taphonomy. Through archaeological excavations (AP or AM transforms)
the object might be recovered and re-introduced into the cultural system (it
Discard (PA-transforms) and preservation (PM-transforms) are both cultural
options. Pomian describes a third cultural option, which, in a sense, can be
considered as pre-museological (Pomian 1990). He described the forming of
collections of objects that are withdrawn from the exploitation cycle in order
to serve as a gift to the death or to the gods. These objects are thus
publicly precluded from being commoditized. This process has been described by
Kopytoff as singularization (Kopytoff 1986: 75). Pomian mentions the following
categories of such collections: grave goods, offerings, tributes and loot,
relics and sacral objects, and treasuries ('semiophores'). Kopytoff adds
public lands, monuments, state art collections, the paraphernalia of royal
power, royal residence, chiefly insignia, ritual objects [note 3]. The basic function of these objects and collections is, according
to Pomian, to mediate between the here-and-now (the visible world) and the
there-and-then (the invisible world). The main difference between these
pre-museological forms of preservation and the museological preservation in a
strict sense is the religious character of the former form of transfer which
is absent in the latter (Desvallees 1989: 348).
On a macro-level this transform involves the conceptual as well as the
physical context. To store the singularised objects special buildings are
constructed, like pyramids, treasure houses, etc. Related to the process as
described by Pomian, is the forming of collections of souvenirs by individual
people. Apart from kings, etc. no physical transform on macro-level is
involved. There is however a characteristic pattern on micro-level. For
example there seem to be special places where souvenirs tend to accumulate
(mantelpieces are a good example).
PA transforms, including those described by Pomian, are initiated by the
users within the primary context. The institutionalisation of the museological
context created a supply-demand (pull-and-push) relationship. PM transforms
are not only initiated by the users 'within' the primary context (i.e.
supply/push factor), but are also the result of active collecting and
selecting by specialists working 'within' the museological context (i.e.
demand/ pull factor). Ashworth and Tunbridge distinguish between
'supply-oriented' and 'demand-oriented' preservation (Ashworth & Tunbridge
1990: 25). However, their use of the terms supply and demand differs from the
approach given in this chapter. Their distinction comes close to the
distinction between an object-oriented and a community-oriented methodology as
described in Chapter 7. Their demand-oriented refers to a type of preservation
determined ultimately by those whose heritage is being presented. To some
extend this agrees with the supply factor in PM-transforms as described in the
To some extent PA and PM transforms can be considered as terminal
commoditization, further exchange is not possible (being part of the
archaeological context) or precluded by legal or cultural fiat. However,
neither PA nor PM transforms appear to be a form of formal
decommoditization. Archaeological material continues to have an exchange
value which becomes manifest after excavation. Likewise commoditized objects
remain potential commodities after musealisation.
There are two types of transforms: those within a basic context and those
from one basic context to another. The latter involve a more fundamental
conceptual change than the former. PP transforms have been discussed already.
AA transforms have been mentioned in connection with 'taphonomy'. Construction
work may involve the removal of earth with archaeological material; household
refuse might be used to fill in ditches; the activities of moles might mix a
clay tobacco pipe with roman terra sigillata. MM transforms remain to be
explained. The most obvious MM transforms on a macro level concern exchange of
objects between museums. An example is the present policy of the Netherlands
government to encourage reallocation of objects and collections in order to
improve the coherence of the 'Collection Netherlands'. Relevant MM transforms
are also the movements of objects between storage and exhibition, and within a
permanent exhibition from one show case to another. Such transforms can be the
result of scientific or aesthetic revaluation.
PA and PM transforms have been mentioned already. AM transforms involve
archaeological excavations or palaeontological field work. AP transforms
involve the economic use of excavated material such as, for example, the use
of excavated cat mummies from Egypt as fertiliser. MP transforms do not happen
very often. One might consider theft as an attempt to re-introduce museum
objects in the primary context. One example is the policy of the Netherlands
government to deaccess part of the national collection of contemporary art.
Initiatives are taken to donate works of art to public institutions, such as
hospitals, old people's homes, schools, etc. MA transforms are even more rare.
Very seldom museums are destroyed by natural disasters, but sometimes museums
appear to hold objects in such a bad condition that removal is
There is a need of a study of context transforms from a museological point
of view. Most available studies focus on PM transforms as most important of
the processes leading to the accumulation of objects in the museological
Cultural formation processes
The cultural options that are referred to can be understood as cultural
formation processes. In this connection Schiffer speaks of C-transforms
(Schiffer 1976: 14). In his model C-transforms concern the materials that are
discarded during the normal operation of a cultural system and do not include
PM transforms. As opposed to cultural formation processes Schiffer mentions
noncultural formation processes (N-transforms) concerning postdepositional
changes in site and artefact morphology (AA transforms).
Theoretically speaking these processes complete each other, but due to
intentional selection and 'loss' during the context transforms, the sum total
of the material contents of the museological and the archaeological context is
never congruent with the material content of the primary context. Despite a
considerable loss of information the PP-, PA-, AA- and AM-transforms lead to
an accumulation of 'sozialen Erfahrungen, Kenntnisse, Erkenntnisse,
Einstellungen, Fahigkeiten, Fertigkeiten, Gewohnheiten, Bedurfnisse,
materiellen und geistigen Erungenschaften'. This accumulation has been called
social inheritance ('soziale Vererbung') by Schreiner and Wecks (1986,
Chapter I, p. 19). More general the term musealization is used as
special form of cultural formation process (= patrimonialization,
Davallon 1993: 13) [note 4].
The inflow of objects into the museological context
is much larger than the outflow. 'The constant flow of works of art from the
private sector to the public sector (...) still stands as an unassailed dogma
(...) No one so far has challenged what might be described as museum
imperialism' (Strong 1988: 19). This 'imperialism' or 'expansionism' has lead
to ever growing museum holdings. In ecological terms the primary context can
be considered as source, while the museological context functions as sink. In
case of non-renewable resources this phenomenon eventually results in
'underdevelopment' at the source-side and 'overdevelopment' at the sink-side.
From a synecological perspective each context transform leaves an 'open'
niche. Underdevelopment means that the removed object is not replaced or is
replaced by an inferior object.
P-M transforms are controlled by social factors. Kopytoff explains that
power often asserts itself symbolically by insisting on its right to
singularise an object, or a set or class of objects (Kopytoff 1986: 73). In a
similar way, Pomian relates the ownership of semiophores to social hierarchy.
Members of the highest social classes are surrounded by semiophores, during
their lives as well as in their graves. 'We now know that this did not happen
because the inhabitants of palaces or temple had taste lacking with the rest
of the population, but because the hierarchical position they had, obliged
them to do so. In traditional societies it is not the individual that collect
objects they like, it is the social position that generates collections'
(Pomian 1990: 46). Similarly Kopytoff states that 'power often asserts itself
symbolically precisely by insisting on its right to singularise an object, or
set or class of objects' (Kopytoff 1986: 73).
Pomian describes a tendency to democratisation of the ownership of
semiophores. However, despite this democratisation collections are still
tokens of superiority and at the same time instruments which enable the owners
to exercise a dominant influence on the intellectual and artistic milieu' (see
also Sola 1984).
'The language of cultural resource management might be termed the language
of cultural capitalism. It is a practice in which a series of individuals
assert a hegemonic claim to the past and organise the temporal passage of this
cultural capital from its historical context to the present of spectacular
preservation, display, study and interpretation. The professional body decides
on the basis of its claimed knowledge what is worth either preserving or
excavating. After subsequent interpretation or conservation the public, or
non-professionals, are informed that this is their past, their heritage, and
that it should be meaningful to them' (Shanks & Tilley 1987: 24). Objects
belonging to 'inferior' cultures were collected and presented and stripped of
their original meaning, confirming the coloniser's power (Araujo & Bruno
In themselves museum collections are to be considered cultural artefacts.
Pearce points at the importance of 'collections studies' as part of
museological research (Pearce 1992). Her suggestion, in fact, meets one of the
main shortcomings from her earlier methodological propositions, namely the
critical analysis of the genesis of the collection. For most subject matter
research the collection is the source of information, rather than the
individual object. The documentary value of objects is at least related to the
collection of which it forms a part.
Appadurai, A. (1986) 'Introduction: commodities and the politics of
value', in: A. Appadurai ed., The social life of things (Cambridge)
Araujo, M.M. & C.Bruno (1988) 'New trends in Brazilian museology', in:
V. Sofka ed., Museology and developing countries. ICOFOM Studie Series
14 (Stockholm) 31-38.
Ashworth, G.J. & J.E.Tunbridge (1990) The touristic-historic
Bazin, G. (1967) The museum age (Brussels).
Buchloh, B. (1991)
Cannon-Brookes, P. (1979)
Davallon, J. (1993) 'Introduction. Le public au centre de l'evolution du
musee', Publics & Musees (2): 10-15.
Desvallees, A. (1989) 'Le defi museologique', in: La museologie selon
Georges-Henri Riviere. Course de museologie. Textes et temoignages
Ennenbach, W. (1983) 'Das Wesen der Musealien', Muzeologicke sesity
Fitch, J.M.. (1982) Historic preservation: curatorial management of the
built world (New York).
Gavanagh, G. (1990) History curatorship. Leicester Museum Studies
Gluzinski, W. (1980) U podstaw muzeologii (Warsaw).
Klein, H.J. & B.Wusthoff-Schafer (1990) Inszenierungen an Museen
und ihre Wirkung auf Besucher. Materialien aus dem Institut fur
Museumskunde 32 (Berlin).
Kopytoff, I. (1986) 'The cultural biography of things: commoditization as
process', in: A.Appadurai ed., The social life of things (Cambridge)
Lawrence, D.L. (1968) 'Taphonomy and information losses in fossil
communities', Geological Society of America Bulletin 79: 1315-1330.
Mead, S.M. (1983) 'Indigenous models of museums for Maori museums in
Oceania', Museum (138): 98-101.
Mertens, J. (1981) 'Omtrent musea en concerten', Wijsgerig Perspectief
Pearce, S. (1986) 'Thinking about things', Museums Journal 85 (4):
Pearce, S. (1992) Museums, objects and collections: a cultural study
Pomian, K. (1990) De oorsprong van het museum. Over het verzamelen
Rosander, J. ed. (1980) Today for tomorrow. Museum documentation of
contemporary society in Sweden by acquisition of objects
Schiffer, M. (1976) Behavioral archeology (New York).
Schreiner K. & H.Wecks (1986) Studien zur Museologie 1.
Schriftenreihe Institut fur Museumswesen 27 (Berlin DDR).
Seale (1979) Recreating the historic house interior
Shanks, M. & C.Tilley (1987) Re-constructing archaeology
Sloterdijk, P. (1991) 'Das Museum als kulturelle Zeitmaschine',
Sola, T. (1984) '(basic paper)', in: V. Sofka ed., Collecting today for
tomorrow. ICOFOM Study Series 6 (Stockholm 1984) 60-69.
Strong, R. (1988) 'Scholar or salesman? The curator of the future',
Muse 6 (2): 16-20.
Thompson, M. (1979) Rubbish Theory (Oxford).
Treinen, H. (1974) 'Museum und Offentlichkeit', in: Zur Lage der
(1) Quoted by Sloterdijk 1991:
230. Sloterdijk adds: 'Befor das erste Museum gebaut war, existierte es
bereits als Denkform des Evolutionismus und Historismus'. >back<
(2) Schiffer (1976: 45) also uses the term
durable object, but with a different meaning: 'tools, machines, and facilities
- in short, transformers and preservers of energy'. Instead of transient
object Schiffer uses the terms consumable and energy source.>back<
(3) The Greek thesauri described by Bazin (1967:
12) belong to this category. Similar treasuries were (and are) found all over
the world (Bazin 1976, Chapter 2; see also Mead 1983 for Oceania).>back<
(4) The term musealisation shows its German-Czech
language background. In English sometimes the term museumization
is preferred. Both terms are synonymous to museification which term has a
French background. >back<
- Peter van Mensch
Towards a methodology of museology
University of Zagreb 1992)