Work, specimen, witness: How different perspectives on museum objects alter the way they are perceived and the values attributed to them

Thomas Thiemeyer


The generic term ‘museum objects’ suggests that a uniform category is involved. But museums in various disciplines have exhibited objects according to quite different rules and have assigned values to them that depend on the standards of the field of inquiry concerned: aesthetic quality, value as a historical source, as a relic or as a representative item. Over time, various display conventions have become established, which appear to us today to be natural and that assign the objects to specific stimulus values. The aim of this essay is to achieve a better understanding of these exhibition practices and discipline-specific value standards. The study aims to discover why we have become accustomed to using objects in exhibitions in different ways, and it distinguishes between three types of object: work, specimen and witness. The hypothesis here is that each of these follows its own display conventions, forms of perception and standards of value. The present essay aims to situate these three types of object – work, specimen and witness – historically and in this way to articulate the differences in status that exist between them.

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Copyright (c) 2016 Thomas Thiemeyer

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360