In essence, a museum is just a big room, or a collection of rooms, packed full of stuff. What’s more, the stuff that’s on display in those few rooms would hardly make a dent in the stuff that’s hidden away in various stores, both on and off-site. But, the magical thing about stuff is that the things you like might not be the same things that I like. I might have an interest in Anglo-Saxon stuff, you might have an interest in Ancient Greek stuff – there’s plenty to go around!
Different stuff mean different things to different people in different ways, as variety is indeed the spice of life. That’s because objects hold meanings for us, as people, and they help us to shape our identity, as well as our view of the world. I have a few things in my life which mean the world to me, but I also have things in my life which might not have a huge amount of innate sentimental value, but say a lot about myself and my interests. For example, I have a pocket-watch that I like to wear. I don’t necessarily wear it because it helps me to tell the time, though. I wear it because my girlfriend gave it to me for Christmas last year, and it reminds me of her. I wear it because I like to listen to the sounds of the gears working, and the gentle tick in moments of silence. But I also wear it because I enjoy winding it – I have no idea why.
At the same time, I have an Xbox One that I like to play in my spare-time. It doesn’t mean the world to me, and if it broke (which it has done once before) or if it got stolen, I would replace it in a heart-beat. It’s because I have no connection to the object itself, my connection is with what the object represents. To me, my Xbox One is replaceable, but the act of playing video-games in my spare time is not. Playing video games with my friends, and writing about them on my website, makes up a large part of my identity. In a way, the Xbox One helps me to form part of my identity, but the object itself means very little to me – it’s in the act of playing it that I find meaning. The pocket-watch, however, doesn’t really shape me as a person but it does have a huge amount of personal meaning to me.
Take the recent decision by the Natural History Museum to remove ‘Dippy The Diplodocus’ from the main entrance, as an example. Dippy has been there for over three decades now, and the decision to remove it from display, and replace it with a blue whale skeleton, has been met with uproar and outrage. People have a strong connection with that dinosaur, because they associate it with both the Natural History Museum and their first experience of visiting the institution. It’s quite awe-inspiring, to walk into the vast hall and be greeted by the arching neck of Dippy, and it’s a memory that seems to ingrain itself in people’s minds. Dippy might represent a school trip to the Natural History Museum as a child, it might remind someone of their first date, or the first time that their Mum or Dad took them on a trip to the City. It might have sparked a love for museums, or a passion for dinosaurs – people can make all kinds of meaning from things.
So, when the Natural History Museum announced that they would be retiring Dippy, people were understandably upset. But, did you know that Dippy isn’t even ‘real’? It’s actually a cast of fossils discovered as long ago as 1898. The skeleton that greets us at the main entrance to the wonderful Natural History Museum, the first object that we see as we enter the treasure-trove of natural wonders, is actually just a representation of an animal that lived millions of years ago. For me, that’s a real testament to the power of objects. How strong must these meanings that we make with objects be, if the concept of replacing something ‘fake’ with a ‘real’ blue whale skeleton has caused this much drama? That’s pretty damn impressive.
For me, I’m of the opinion that replacing Dippy is a good thing. I think that it’s time for a new generation to create new meaning from a new object. I will always remember gazing up at that massive dinosaur, holding my Dad’s hand as I walked in to the museum for the first time as a small kid. But I will also remember the first time that I see ‘Willy the Whale’ (name pending), perhaps holding the hand of my future son or daughter, as I take them on their first visit to the museum.