by Nicholas Thomas. Reaktion Books, dist. By University of Chicago Press, September 2016. 144 p. ill. ISBN 9781780236568 (pbk.), $19.95.
Reviewed January 2017
Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at University of Cambridge, addresses the role of museums in contemporary society. Thomas focuses on collections, exploring materiality and cultural impact. He argues that activating a collection through community participation, artist response, and curation enriches society by stimulating visitors’ natural curiosity so they make connections between the objects, their lives, and the world. The book contains concrete, practical examples like financial information, visitor numbers, and incidences of construction to support the value of museums. It also includes more theoretical concepts such as curiosity; repatriation as related to identity and belonging; the value of objects; and the de/re-contextualization of collections.
The author initially addresses how museums have become increasingly significant to society in the past twenty years and then pivots to delve into museum collections, which he believes to be “the heart of more or less everything museums do” (67). This chapter is particularly interesting as it discusses the value of objects, and how museum processes (collecting, storing, exhibiting, and digitizing) change the meaning of collections. Thomas explores how as objects inspire creativity, museum collections become “creative technologies” that “enable people to make new things” (117). Throughout the book he highlights the importance of dialogue between museums and communities.
The book is thought-provoking; Thomas has intimate knowledge of museums and provides many interesting examples. Although most examples are cited, the book lacks consistent citation of some of its broader ideas. Additional research may be necessary to verify statements that are not distinguished between perception and fact. The images in the book are reproductions in grayscale and not of significant value. The writing style is fairly informal and readable. Overall, Thomas’ connections between concepts make the book a compelling look at the role of collections in society. It is worth reading.
This book is appropriate for libraries that support museum and cultural heritage professionals, students in museum studies or related programs, and researchers or general audiences concerned with various aspects of material culture and museums.