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What Do we See in Museums?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2016

Graham Oddie*
University of Colorado, Boulder


I address two related questions. First: what value is there in visiting a museum and becoming acquainted with the objects on display? For art museums the answer seems obvious: we go to experience valuable works of art, and experiencing valuable works of art is itself valuable. In this paper I focus on non-art museums, and while these may house aesthetically valuable objects, that is not their primary purpose, and at least some of the objects they house might not be particularly aesthetically valuable at all. Second: to what ontological type or category do museum objects belong? What type of item should be featured on an inventory of a museum collection? I distinguish between typical objects and special objects. While these are different types of object, both, I argue, are abstracta, not concreta. The answer to the second question, concerning the ontological category of special objects, throws new light on various philosophical questions about museums and their collections, including the question about the value of museum experiences. But it also throws light on important questions concerning the preservation and restoration of museum objects.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2016 

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1 I am thus using the term property rather broadly, not restricting it to the notion of a fundamental property, or what David Armstrong would call a universal. Armstrong, D. M., Universals: An Opinionated Introduction (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

2 See Oddie, Graham, Value, Reality and Desire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), chapter 6Google Scholar.

3 The arguments that follow are, of course, very similar to those in the familiar debate about the statue and the clay. The locus classicus is Gibbard, Allan, ‘Contingent Identity’, Journal of Philosophical Logic 4 (1975), 187222 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a survey of the recent literature, see Wasserman, Ryan, ‘Material Constitution’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013), edited by Zalta, Edward N. Google Scholar.

4 Role theory, or office theory, was developed most thoroughly and perspicuously by Pavel Tichý in a series of articles in the 1970s and 1980s, and I am heavily indebted to his theory throughout. For a classic statement of the theory see Tichý, Pavel, ‘Einzeldinge als Amtsinhaber’, Zeitschrift für Semiotik 9 (1987), 1350 Google Scholar. Translated as Individuals and their roles’, in Svoboda, V., et al. (eds), Pavel Tichý’s Collected Papers in Logic and Philosophy (Prague and Dunedin: Filosofia and the University of Otago Press, 2004), 749763 Google Scholar. (This was in fact written in 1971–72 and circulated before being translated and published in German.) For an early published statement of the theory see An approach to intensional analysis’, Noûs 5 (1971), 273297 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 I am of course considering Tutankhamun's mask to be among the special objects, not the typical objects, of the inventory. For the typical objects, what should be on the inventory are various repeatable properties: like Species Deltochilum valgum (or whatever the museum's convention is).

6 For my purposes in this paper I am going to ignore a rival view of the distinction between the lump of gold and the death mask – viz. that they are distinct co-located material particulars, one of which bears a constitution relation to the other. I argue against this view in ‘The statue and the clay: beyond monism and dualism’ (ms, under submission).

7 A widow is someone who was married to a man now dead. But a complete list of all widows is not a list of dead men. That Mary is a widow implies that Mary's erstwhile husband is dead. But that does not imply of any particular man either that he was Mary's husband or that he is now dead. All that it implies is that there is someone or other who was married to Mary and who is now dead. Anyone will do.

9 I am indebted to Victoria Harrison for making this suggestion forcefully. Although I reject the suggestion I can certainly see the attraction of it.

10 That there is a temptation to think of intentional objects like offices as in some way subjective or projected comes out in Simon Knell's otherwise insightful article The intangibility of things’, in Dudley, Sandra H. (ed), Museum Objects: Experiencing the Properties of Things (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 324336 Google Scholar.

11 I wish to thank the participants in the Philosophy and Museums conference at the University of Glasgow for many helpful suggestions. In particular I owe a huge debt to Victoria Harrison whose careful and insightful criticisms forced me to revise a number of my views and arguments and also to my colleague Dom Bailey who read many drafts and provided crucial and invaluable feedback on every one of them. I would also like to thank the Society for the Philosophy of Education for sponsoring my participation at the conference.