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Reference: André Desvallées and François Mairesse (Eds.). Key Concepts of Museology. 2010. Available in 9 languages from http://icom.museum/professional-standards/key-concepts-of-museology/


N. – (from the Latin objectum, past participle objectare, to throw against) – Equivalent in French: objet; Spanish: objeto; German: Objekt, Gegenstand; Italian: oggetto; Portuguese: objecto, (Brazilian: objeto).

The term museum object is sometimes replaced by the neologism musealia, modelled on the Latin neuter noun musealium with musealia in the plural. The equivalent in French: muséalie (rarely used), musealia; Spanish: musealia; German: Musealie, Museumsobjekt; Italian: musealia; Portuguese: musealia.


In the simplest philosophical sense of the word an object is not in itself a form of reality, but a product, a result, or an equivalence. In other words it means that which is placed, or thrown forward (ob-jectum, Gegen-stand) by a subject, who treats it as different from himself, even if he considers himself as an object. This distinction between the subject and the object developed relatively late and is a feature of Western culture. In this way the object is different from the thing, which is related to the subject as a continuation or an implement (for example, a tool as a continuation of the hand is a thing and not an object).

5041081557_31246c96e1_b“Cow”, Marcos de Torres

A museum object is something which is musealised; a thing can be defined as any kind of reality in general. The expression ‘museum object’ could almost be a pleonasm in so far as the museum is not only the place which shelters objects, but also a place with the principal mission of transforming things into objects.


1. The object is not in any case raw, reality or simply a given item which it would be sufficient to collect, for example, to be part of a museum’s collection, as one would collect seashells on the shore. It is an ontological status which, in given circumstances, a particular thing will assume, on the understanding that the thing would not be considered an object in other circumstances. The difference between the thing and the object lies in the fact that the thing has become a concrete part of life and that the relationship we have with it is a relationship of affection or symbiosis. This is revealed by the animism of societies often reputed to be ‘primitive’: it is a relationship of usability, as is the case of the tool adapted to the shape of the hand. By contrast, an object is always that which the subject sets down in front of himself, and separate from him; it is thus what is ‘facing’ and different.

2b98d603f080e571c6e5d827786be6aaMirrored platform in England

In this sense the object is abstract and dead, closed on itself, as evidenced by that series of objects which is a collection (Baudrillard, 1968). This status of the object is considered today to be a purely western product (Choay, 1968; Van Lier, 1969; Adotevi, 1971), in so far as it was the West which broke with the tribal way of life and thought about the gap between subjects and objects for the first time (Descartes, Kant, and later McLuhan, 1969).

01b253dbddc8177890d2b87530c3ef5dA minute of Perfection

2. Through their work of acquisition, research, preservation and communication, museums can be presented as one of the major authorities in the ‘production’ of objects. In this case, the museum object – musealium or musealia – does not have any intrinsic reality, even if the museum is not the only instrument to ‘produce’ objects. In fact other approaches are ‘objectivising’ as is the case in particular for scientific processes to establish reference standards (c.f., measurement scales) which are completely independent of the subject and which consequently find it difficult to treat that which is living as such (Bergson) because it tends to turn it into an object, wherein lies the difficulty of physiology compared to anatomy. The museal object is made to be seen, with its whole mass of implicit connotations, because we can display it in order to stir emotions, to entertain, or to teach. This action of displaying is so essential that it is what turns a thing into an object by creating this distance, whereas the priority in scientific operations is the requirement to account for things in a universally intelligible context.

5838f4890901db584ccf31db30b173c9“Shark”, This is colossal

3. Naturalists and ethnologists, as well as museologists, generally select things which they already call objects, according to their potential as evidence, that is the quality of information (markers) that they can provide to reflect the ecosystems or cultures the traces of which they wish to preserve. “Musealia (museum objects) are authentic movable objects which, as irrefutable evidence, show the development of nature and society” (Schreiner 1985). The wealth of information they provide has led ethnologists such as Jean Gabus (1965) or Georges Henri Rivière (1989) to attribute to them the name witness-object, which they retain when they are displayed. Georges Henri Rivière even used the expression symbol-object to describe certain witness objects heavy with content which might claim to summarise a whole culture or period. The result of systematically making things into objects is that they can be studied much better than if they were still in their original context (ethnographic field, private collection or gallery), but it can also become fetishist: a ritual mask, a ceremonial costume, a prayer tool etc. quickly change their status when they enter the museum. We are no longer in the real world, but in the imaginary world of the museum. For example, the visitor is not allowed to sit on a chair in a museum of decorative arts, which supposes an established distinction between the functional chair and the chair-object. Their function has been removed and they have been ‘decontextualised’, which means that from now on they will no longer serve their original purpose but have entered a symbolic order which gives them new meaning, leading Krzysztof Pomian to call such objects semiophores (“carriers of significance”) and to attribute a new value to them – which is first of all purely a museal value but which can become an economic value. They thus become sacred (consecrated) evidence of culture.

ifionamage01“Harrier”, Fiona Banner

4. Exhibitions reflect these choices. For semiologists like Jean Davallon “Musealia can be considered less as things (from the point of view of their physical reality) than as language beings (they are defined, recognized as worthy of being safeguarded and displayed) and as supports of social practices (they are collected, catalogued, displayed etc.)” (Davallon, 1992). Objects can thus be used as signs, just like words in speech, when they are used in an exhibition. But objects are not just signs, since by their presence alone they can be directly perceived by our senses. For this reason the term real thing is often used to indicate a museum object exhibited because of its power of “authentic presence”, that is “The real things of the museum language are those things which we present as what they are, not as models or images or representations of something else.” (Cameron, 1968). For various reasons (sentimental, aesthetic, etc.) we have an intuitive relationship with that which is displayed. The noun exhibit refers to a real thing which is displayed, but also to anything displayable (a sound, photographic or film document, a hologram, a reproduction, a model, an installation or a conceptual model).

e5430a77e1febe481448c3a04c951f15Creative Review

5. A certain tension exists between the real thing and its substitute. Regarding this we must note that for some people the semiophore object is only a carrier of meaning when it is presented for itself, and not through a substitute. Wide as it may seem, this purely reist concept does not take account of either the origins of museums in the Renaissance or the development and diversity reached by museology during the 19th century. Nor does it allow us to take into account the work of a number of museums whose activities are essentially on other support systems such as the internet or duplicated media, or more generally all the museums made of substitutes such as museums of casts (gypsotheques), collections of models, collections of wax repro- ductions (ceratheques), or science centres which display mostly models. Since these objects were considered as elements of a language, they can be used to create lecture exhibitions, but they are not always adequate to sustain the entire lecture. We must therefore envisage other elements of a language of substitution. When the exhibit replaces a real thing or authentic object, through its function or nature, the replacement is called a substitute. It may be a photograph, a drawing or a model of the real thing. The substitute would thus be said to be in conflict with the ‘authentic’ object, even though it is not exactly the same as a copy of the original (such as the casts of a sculpture or copy of a painting), in so far as substitutes can be created directly from an idea or a process and not just by producing a perfect copy. According to the form of the original and the use that should be made of it, the substitute can be two or three-dimensional. The idea of authenticity, particularly important in fine arts museums (masterpieces, copies and fakes), influences the majority of the questions attached to the status and value of museum objects. We must nonetheless note that there are museums which have collections made solely of substitutes, and that, generally speaking, the policy of substitutes (copies, plaster casts or wax, models or digital images) opens the field of museum operations very wide and leads us to question all the present values of the museum from the point of view of museal ethics. Moreover, from the wider perspective mentioned above, any object displayed in a museum context must be considered as a substitute for the reality it represents because as a musealised thing, the museum object is a substitute for this thing (Deloche, 2001).

3_aiba_hTakanori Alba, PICDIT

6. In the museological context, especially in the fields of archaeology and ethnology, specialists are accustomed to invest the object with the meaning they have developed from their own research. But this raises several problems. First of all, the objects change their meaning in their original environment at the whim of each generation. Next, each visitor is free to interpret them according to his or her own culture. The result is the relativism summarised by Jacques Hainard in 1984 in a sentence which has become famous: “The object is not the truth of anything. Firstly polyfunctional, then polysemic, it takes on meaning only when placed in context.” (Hainard, 1984).

Resources: André Desvallées and François Mairesse

And the assistance of the ICOM International Committee for Museology

Main image and for social networks: Architonic

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