Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A display case too far

When the first museum that we’d probably recognize as such, the British Museum, first started displaying its wares to the public on 15 January 1759, it still believed that physically holding items was essential to one’s knowledge of them. The weight and heft in particular were regarded as critical to deep appreciation. As late as 1827 The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford allowed visitors to handle artifacts with the permission of the curator. As concerns about conservation increased during the nineteenth century, the old unlockable cabinets slowly gave way to sealed ones as surely as glass has to Perspex.

Today the museum mode has been taken up throughout the retail industry as objects are shown in cases and transparent boxes to assert their status as museum-like icons. This overall design trend is why we noticed what seems to be a new move by the justice system to step up the status of its own exhibits. No more the humble sealed and numbered plastic baggy. Evidence now finds itself elevated to iconic status by this museum-like display with its two armatures raising the knife in an elegant angle above the wooden base. There also seems to be a museum-style label.

This sort of display technique has the effect of cuttting out what would seem to be important information about this weapon. The Jury cannot hold the knife and judge its weight and balance. The truth of this object is very simple: this is a kitchen knife, and it is alleged that it killed someone.

So you have to ask, why would our courts allow an object like this to be raised from its commonplace status as evidence to this higher order of celebrity weapon?

Image: Dominion Post. Background on display techniques Museum Manners: the sensory life of the early museum by Constance Classen, Concordia University