This is a rant. Its about the small museum’s obsession with official, legitimate, super-important-making frames and plaques.
I work for a (very) small history museum. While I do have a part -time job at a large museum run by an even larger entity, I also freelance for other (very, very) small history museums. These are the kind of places with a microscopic budget raised by lasagna dinners and a handful of membership fees and donations. They are almost all volunteer-run. So this rant is accompanied by a huge helping of guilt.
I give as much advice as a I can to small museums. I’m for raising the bar at all museums and sharing knowledge is the first step. There is, however, something I haven’t told them yet. I can bring myself to break it to them. I’m not even sure that I know how to put it diplomatically. Its about the frames…and the plaques.
If you’ve ever worked at a small historical society or a museum that is run mostly by volunteers, you know what I’m talking about.
Let’s start with the frames. They are the lesser of the two evils, I think. History museums are full of pictures. Pictures need to be in frames, right? This has been the guiding principle for decades, as far as I can tell. That box under the desk: full of cheap gold metal frames bought from a Woolworth’s in the 70s. That extra file cabinet drawer: ripe with rattling, faux-Victorian frames meant to look old-timey. Just last week, I opened a small closet at the back of the schoolhouse building being used as a museum by a local historical society and found 25 cubic feet of cheap and tacky picture frames! Then this morning, I unearthed a forgotten box in my own museum and found a trove of those early-90s era inch-thick clear-plastic “invisible frames.”
Many of these places also have a sort of gallery space that displays rows (always in rows) of black and white photographs held prisoner in these once-new but never-good frames. When I took down some of these marching metal rows at my own museum (during the first week of my employ), they were defended with cries of “…but they’re in frames?!”
I’m going to lay it on the line here, people, frames don’t make a picture better. Frames don’t make a picture more important, more legitimate, or more historic. So let’s say you want your pictures not to look cheap, dated, and cluttered. What’s the alternative? The real problem is that there isn’t a great alternative. Me personally? I will scan them, print them, mount them on foamcore, or drop leaflets with the pictures printed on them from a passing bi-plane before those cheap gold frames go back on the wall.
If I feel that way about frames, get ready for the vitriol I reserve for plaques! The same misguided museum people who think that a frame makes things more legit think that plaques make things totally super-legit. At my own museum, I counted 13 plaques in four rooms upon my hiring. I recently freelanced at a museum that took the plaque-cake, if you will. This museum has an entryway that they’ve turned into a plaque-gallery. It has 32 plaques with space reserved for more.
To be clear, I’m talking about inch-thick dark wood (or plastic!) bases with brass plated screwed onto them and etched word and sometime pictures. I hate the idea of commemorative plaques. I can let slide the lobby-style kinds where each large donor gets a brick or a leaf or a tile. I even LIKE the one that lists the volunteer of the year. It never stops there, though– there’s a plaque to mark who donated money for a room, there’s a plaque marking a special day in memory of a famous resident, there’s tiny plaques nailed to the middle of large expanses of walls, there are whole walls tiled with plaques.
Is this a generational thing? Yeah. The world as we knew it respected the pictures and information that was put in a frame or permanently etched on a plaque. What changed? If you can put your finger on it, please let us know! All I know is that a wood and metal plaque in a museum makes me want to avert my eyes in a generous mood and in a more surly mood…I want to take them down and declare mutiny all Abbie Hoffman style.
Plaques are for streets and buildings, and roadside information–free the museums! If we are going to move our museum out of the box we first have to get them unframed and unplaqued!