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Robot Curators, or, How Museums Make Us Human

Chinese Automaton
Here at the RIHS, we talk a great deal about our Mission, and check everything we do and collect against that Mission.  In the collecting departments, we often summarize the mission as “collect, preserve and share,” though we know that’s a gross oversimplification.
We know we’re here to do more, and that the RIHS has a more fundamental role.

The Rhode Island Historical Society, believing that a sense of history is fundamental to understanding human experience, collects, preserves, and shares materials from Rhode Island’s past, so that present and future generations can comprehend more fully their predecessors, their communities, and themselves. Pursuing the highest standards of collection, preservation, presentation, and management, the Society encourages and assists people of all backgrounds and interests to learn more about Rhode Island’s varied history.

That role is often described elsewhere by an organization’s core values, and at our all-staff meeting on March 26, we spent some time reading, discussing, and writing to help begin shaping our core values. We looked at some wonderful examples, of which my favorites are probably these from the Missouri History Museum (full disclosure: I used to work there).

Remembrance: The Missouri History Museum will facilitate public examination of the past to engender mutual appreciation of differing points of view, discovery of shared meaning and expansion of the common ground and shared future that bind us.
Stewardship: The Missouri History Museum will reflect the fundamental obligation of every generation to leave this community, region and world in better condition for those who will next inherit them.

When I got home after the meeting, after all the chores that every household has, I settled in to watch a movie.  My thoughts  had moved on from the staff meeting to the news of the day and the chores of tomorrow,  but my husband chose a movie with amazing resonance: Wall*E.
Wall*E reminded me that one important thing museums do is to remind us of all the things that make us human, and create our shared human experience.  Wall*E combs through the junk and trash, collecting—curating—his own collection of human memory. The Rubik’s cube, the light bulb, the egg beater, the Zippo lighter: All those things are made and used by humans, and all those things have a story to tell. The stories connect us, across differences of time, age, gender, class, race, and every other dividing line. The objects we collect at the RIHS, from pockets to pamphlets, from porringers to postcards, remind us of our humanity and the connections we have to the people who came before us, and the people who will come after us.
When Wall*E knocks the screen from around the woman’s head so that she sees the pool beyond  her hoverchair, that is, in a way, what we try to do every day here at the RIHS. We connect the stories of the past with the people of today so we can all better understand the present. With luck and patience, that can help us make choices together for a better  future.
~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections

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