Objects without a story

Sarah Crawford accompanied her introduction with images of museum collections, many of which featured her home institution, The Field Museum of Natural History.


This is ICOM’s (International Council Of Museums) definition:
“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

How do these museums select/collect objects that represent the heritage of humanity?

  • At The Field Museum I am helping develop the content for a new exhibition about China.
  • We have 32,000 objects in China collection; we had to pick 416 for the exhibition. Of these objects, 190 of these were collected over 80 years ago by one man, Berthold Laufer.
  • Berthold Laufer the curator of Asian Anthropology at the FM from 1908 to 1934. He personally collected 19,000 objects from China and Tibet. Laufer was collecting in China about 15 years after the Field first opened.
  • Many anthropologists collected objects as a means of preserving cultures they thought were vanishing. Sometimes these trips were a bit exploitive but they resulted in the majority of The Museum’s current collection.
  • We can do research but we do not know any truly personal information about MOST of these objects. It was not museum practice at the time to collect stories along with objects.


  • The object that stands out to me among the China collection is a mariner’s compass that was not from Laufer but by Thomas Mason, the Field Museum’s chief engineer.
  • He received it as a gift in 1914 from Christian Hoffman, the chief engineer on a Yangtze Steamer. Hoffman’s steamboat would have traveled along China’s Yangtze River shipping goods and people throughout China. That’s all we know about this compass but it is more than what we know about most of the objects in our collection.
  • See what a story can do to an object? A top hat is just a hat unless Abe Lincoln owned it.


  • We wanted this event to give people an opportunity to share stories about their objects.
  • If museums “exhibit the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity” what objects/stories do you think belong in a museum?
  • 200 years from now when the world you are familiar with no longer exists, what would you want people to remember about your life and your culture?

Sarah Crawford is an Exhibition Developer at the Field Museum of Natural History. 

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