Is there an object missing?

In this blog, ‘Curating an Exhibition’ student, Melanie de Visser, uncovers a perspective about the display of sacred museum objects:

‘In this year’s exhibition created by the ‘curating an exhibition’ students of the University of Aberdeen, the visitors will encounter an empty stand in one of the cases. This might give the impression that we have forgotten to put an object in. The empty stand, however, is intentional. It displays acknowledgement, appreciation, responsibility and respect for sacred cultural objects in museum collections.

White round podium with empty glass showcase illuminated by floor spotlights.

During the creation of the exhibition, we have carefully selected objects from the Museums and Special Collections collection. One of the investigated objects was a putorino, named by the collectors as a ‘flute’. This wooden carved object is an instrument and originates from New Zealand where it has a sacred meaning to the indigenous Maori population. The putorino is a taonga puoro.

Taonga is a noun that means ‘treasure’ and puoro is the verb ‘to sing’.

There are certain cultural protocols attached to the flute and its sound, which embody the very essence of Maori identity. This can come in many forms: language, culture, values and sounds. The spiritual relevance in all of these forms is therefore treated with great respect.

As a museum object, the putorino cannot carry out its purpose; through its acquisition, it is not contextualized in the museum and does not interact with its natural surrounding, wherefore it loses parts of its original function. The sacred meaning and the connected value of the objects however, can remain.

Many museum collections hold objects in their store, that embody sacred values for the communities they originate from. It used to be the case that collected objects from other countries were often misinterpreted in a museum space. Museum practitioners used their authority to state what the object was, instead of asking the people to whom it belonged.

We felt that any display or interpretation would not do it justice. It is the reason we chose to leave the space empty; to indicate its value.

The research and display of sacred objects play an important role in museum practices today. The empty space has the aim to promote, encourage discussion and emphasize the responsibility museums have to face today when exhibiting sacred objects.

Instead of turning a blind eye to controversial elements in the museum’s collection, we decided to spotlight them.

  • For kids: learning about Maori instruments in New Zealand’
The opening of the exhibition: 
June, 11th in the Sir Duncan Rice Library

Please leave a comment below of what you think about the display of sacred objects.


About uoamuseums

The University of Aberdeen's Museums include King’s Museum and the University's Zoology Museum. The museums can claim to be Scotland's oldest, with records of museums and collections as far back as the late 17th century. Thanks to their status as a Recognised Collection of national significance, the Zoology Museum’s displays are currently being improved, while King's Museum hosts changing exhibitions drawn from across the collections, particularly those formerly in Marischal Museum. Visitors are warmly welcomed to the museums, and there are no charges for admission. Marischal College now houses the Museums Collections Centre, caring for and conserving many of the collections.
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