My Experience at the Natural History Museum: What IS information?

To many heritage professionals, ‘information’ is a quality that is intrinsic to an object. In some ways it may also be considered a value, but here we hit upon a slight conceptual barrier when, to my mind and a few others in the field of heritage studies and philosophy, a value cannot be intrinsic. Value is something that is attributed to an object, whether that be an artwork, a fragment of a medieval pitcher or a mineral specimen. To me, this means that there can be no intrinsic value of an object. If something is not used, kept or even possibly known about, it has no value to anyone. However, if something is then discovered we can immediately put a perceived value onto that object. This may even be the perception that because it has been hidden or lost for any number of years that it therefore must be important, and hence valuable. It’s almost like the ‘philosophical’ question of whether there is a sound if a tree falls and there is no one to hear it. Apart from an object that has lain forgotten about does not generally make any vibrations which is perceived as sound, or in our case value. Ahem.

Anyway, what I was trying to say was that ‘information’ is not always such an easy concept to grasp either.

And the idea that ‘information’ is not an easy concept to grasp was actually something I found difficult to understand too.

So where are we going here?

Basically, I wanted to give you a little flavour of one of the conceptual landmines that are impeding my safe transit across the field of value studies and in the process of doing so, understand things a little clearer myself!

What alerted me to this little philosophical conundrum, was the first day or so of starting part of my masters project at the Natural History Museum in London. For those of you that have not read CSI, but for Museums, you may need a little filling in at this point.

I am currently studying an MRes Heritage Science at University College London, where my project focuses around the identification and understanding of values associated with geological collections. My interest in the subject sprung from my lifelong interest in geology and geological collections which culminated in a degree in geology from the University of Edinburgh. Combine this with the wish to work in museums and a long term interest in history and archaeology and Poof! You get an MRes in Heritage Science on Geological Collections: Identifying Unique Values. To see an earlier version of the project and the poster to go with it see: http://www.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/graduate/csh/attachments/benvghr3-robb

In working with the Russell Collection at the NHM, I wanted to assess the extend to which the collection could be used to further quantify values identified through questionnaire data. I hypothesised that certain elements of collections could be seen as components that relate specifically to certain values, such as research notes relating to a personal value, physical damage relating to aesthetic value, locality data relating to cultural value (if just one example) and finally labels relating to ‘information’ value.

Unfortunately, the flaw with this is that I do not yet have the analysed data from the questionnaires telling me the values associated with collections. However, this is why I needed a hypothesis, and the above is therefore something I am going to test. Which is also where we came to our other little friend, ‘information’:

Is ‘information’ a value? Is ‘information’ just a big word which encompasses a lot of other little intricacies of an object or specimen which are essential to its existence (intrinsic property?). How do you go about measuring ‘information’?

Well, first off, I decided that within the scope of this project there is so many times you need to use the word ‘information’, but little to define in any way what people mean by it – especially when you are asking mineralogists, petrologists, palaeontologists, curators, conservators, academics and industry professionals. So I asked the question: “what does the term ‘information’ mean to you?” in the questionnaire to see if there is any common ground between them.

While analysing responses, I was perusing the Russell Collection with my supervisor at the NHM and discussing what changes to various important ‘components’ of specimens could affect the way values are perceived. What we knew was that in geological collections the label is extremely important. Without the label a geological specimen is almost useless. To be able to assign any importance or future use to the specimen there needs to be a locality associated with the specimen and ideally an identification as well. This is an incredibly easy concept to entertain for anyone familiar with geological collections and something that generally doesn’t even need to be explained. However, try explaining this to someone who is familiar with other heritage collections – art, archives, furniture etc. and you find you hit a few stumbling blocks.

Information is something carried by all objects. In many instances in heritage collections this information is easily accessible, such as in a painting, the style, brushwork and paints will usually give clues as to the time period and possibly artist who painted it. A document in an archive will have the paper or parchment, the ink and the writing or pictures on it by which to identify it. Anyone who has watched Antiques Roadshow or similar will be familiar with experts identifying the time period, make and sometimes maker of an object through simple observation of a random object.

For something mentioned above to be missing ‘information’, physical damage to the object obviously causes the most harm. Crucial ‘information’ such as a key word on a document, the makers mark on a cabinet or chemically degraded paints could all affect the ‘information’ stored in the object. However, with a rock or mineral specimen such physical damage may not be important or cause any important loss of ‘information’. If the label was in some way not present though, this would cause significant problems for the value of the specimen – whether that be scientific, historic, or educational.

To conclude, ‘information’ can be complicated, and I am very much looking forward to finding out what comes out of the questionnaire and the rest of my time at the NHM. No doubt I will also be blogging about some of the other experiences I have in the process!

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