Preserving functionality: keeping artefacts ‘alive’ in museums

Rossi Rognoni, G. (2019) Preserving functionality: keeping artefacts ‘alive’ in museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62 (3). pp. 403-413. ISSN print (0011-3069) online (2151-6952)


According to a recent article, ‘Instrument museums are mausoleums, places for the display of the musically dead, with organologists acting as morticians, preparing dead instrument bodies for preservation and display’. This view, often repeated since the 1960s, reflects the frustration experienced by most museum visitors facing objects stripped of their function and presented as aestheticized icons. Curatorial debate has led to the development of several alternative proposals to deliver a culturally engaging presentation of musical objects. However, none has managed to efficiently replace the expectation of museums visitors to appreciate the object in its functional state. Moreover, debate over the role of museums in preserving intangible – as well as tangible – heritage stimulated further consideration of the importance of preserving/presenting functionality of music‐related objects. While some authors have developed specific music‐related perspectives (e.g. Barclay R. [2005]. The Preservation and Use of Historic Musical Instruments: Display Case and Concert Hall), little or no cross‐fertilisation has happened with the much broader world of functional objects in museums, which includes at least scientific, technologic and mechanical objects and those pertaining to daily lives. The article will offer an overview of current debate, approaches and policies for the preservation and display of functionality in a variety of non‐music related museums, with a parallel perspective on the current approach to musical instruments.

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