(I) Use value, exchange value
I came across the phrase “use vs exchange value” while reading New York For Sale that triggered the memory of a brief moment in the De Young museum. My friend and I were looking at a slit drum from an indigenous culture and suddenly I felt incredibly sad that the instrument will likely never make a sound for an audience again. We’ve preserved only the object, not what it represented or its cultural function. Have we missed the point? Museums are supposed to give us a sense of the lives of others, of past peoples, but how worthwhile is this shallow understanding if it’s based only on objects and appearances in someone’s life instead of the experience of it?
This sort of museum display is comparable to old fashioned zoos where animals were caged in bleak concrete cubes and no attempt was made to situate them in any semblance of their natural habitat. It’s the same mentality of an object for itself as a visual curiosity instead of placement within a context, complex understanding of its functional role. The object or animal is assigned a false cultural or monetary value rather than its true functional value. So instead of adding something to the lives of visitor, to the local community, the object sits in a sterile display, serving mostly as an investment that bolsters the institution’s stats and draws more paying customers. The museum is such a pleasant experience – the lighting and displays look so nice, and the objects are inanimate and incapable of eliciting sympathy, that the comparison seems a bit loopy. But I think it holds.
Wouldn’t it be nice to hear what that drum sounds like? To have either an audio recording of an controlled demonstration or even better, one day of the year when the community is invited to hear/see the drum played live. That’s asking a lot, but in this day and age we probabbly have the technology to make a 3D scan of the drum and reconstruct it from similar materials. Then the original artifact remains intact and we can play the replica at will!
How much fun could we have handling exact replicas of history museum items?