Locked up in the museum

seventeenth-century lock inside the front door at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

seventeenth-century lock inside the front door at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

Locks and keys are everywhere in museums. They can be directly on display: as particularly hard, small and durable things, locking mechanisms, and keys in particular, can often be all that materially survives of a past culture. Protecting and preserving objects in cabinets, showcases and storerooms, locks and keys are also almost invariably intrinsic to both the display and conservation of collections, and it is difficult to conceive of any museum that does not lock things up in some way or another.

This post is about both these types of locks and keys in museums, and all the cases in between. I’m interested in how the meaning of objects can be plural, can shift, and can be ambiguous. Locks and keys can mean and do one thing outside of the museum, and another thing within the museum, but their meaning and function can also morph from one thing to another within the museum itself, over time, sometimes unintentionally, often unpredictably. All things in museums appreciate and depreciate in value, sometimes in unexpected directions, and locks and keys are very nice example of this.

mediaeval keys at the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels

mediaeval keys at the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels

Many museums contain displays of locks and keys. In a museum concerned with technology, these objects might be used to explain the history of locking mechanisms, perhaps with examples from pioneers such as Linus Yale or Jeremiah Chubb. Indeed, there is a whole museum devoted to the display and study of locks and keys. Just like at the Corning Museum of Glass in Western New York State, where things made of glass are displayed behind things made of glass, at the Lock Museum of America in Terryville, Connecticut, locks are displayed behind locks.

In numerous museums metal keys are displayed because they are all that survives of a building, a hospital, a jail or a place of worship, and because their small size and portability make them convenient to display. Ceremonial keys that grant the freedom of a city are also common; it is often unclear whether such keys were intended to be used in any actual locking mechanism, or whether they always had a predominantly symbolic function. Migration, diaspora and catastrophe can result in a key or set of keys being the only material link a family or individual has to their former home and former lives. Museums that document the experience of migrants and refugees alike display keys as often as they display suitcases, as poignant symbols of transit and upheaval.

late nineteenth-century ceremonial ceremonial key/fish-slice, Maryhill Burgh Halls, Glasgow

late nineteenth-century ceremonial key/fish-slice, Maryhill Burgh Halls, Glasgow

It is intended that these kinds of locking mechanisms in museums should be attended to. The visitor is supposed to see them, because they are valued as ‘museum objects’. In contrast, surrounding them are locking mechanisms, which, just like glass panels and doors, you are supposed to see through and see past. Shift your gaze away from the carefully positioned museum objects, however, and they’re everywhere.

More specifically, locks are everywhere. Keys are harder to come across. It is transgressive and rare to see keys to cabinets, and indeed the most carefully protected object in a museum is often the master key-box. Even on the behind-the-scenes tours that many museums run these days, you don’t get to see where the keys are kept.

rare glimpse of an unlocked cabinet, a museum somewhere in northern Europe

rare glimpse of an unlocked cabinet, a museum somewhere in northern Europe

Given time, however, the see-through cases and locking mechanisms can become visible. In the recently refurbished Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, cabinets and their locks have begun the process of becoming museum objects in their own right, as this label on one of them makes clear:

This is one of the few surviving display cases ordered by Arthur Evans from Sage & Company of London in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It is of a type known as a Kensington case, first used in the South Kensington (later V&A) Museum.

These nineteenth-century cases currently contain objects collected in the seventeenth century. At the time of the establishment of the Ashmolean Museum, it was dismissed by some as nothing but a “knickknackatory”, a mere collection of curiosities. Today these objects are greatly valued, but perhaps in the future the cases at Oxford may become even more valued than the objects they encase. As a sign of their value, they may end up being encased themselves, as has happened to William Hunter’s insect cabinet at the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow:

a cabinet in a cabinet, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow

a cabinet in a cabinet, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow

I’m particularly intrigued by the locks on this cabinet at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. A new lock has been added directly to the cabinet, presumably to comply with stringent security standards. What is the meaning of the old lock? Has it become a museum object? Which of the two locks is more visible? Will curators in 100 years time regret this alteration? Why is it that it only seems in retrospect appropriate that no such new lock was added to the Hunterian insect cabinet?

old locks and new locks at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

old locks and new locks at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

Outside of a museum, a bicycle lock prevents theft. Inside this transport museum in Munich, the function of a bicycle lock becomes ambiguous. Does it prevent theft, or does it serve to illustrate the general function of locks? Is the lock part of the apparatus which secures and protects museum objects, or is it itself a museum object? Is this a display which explains the manner in which we secure bicycles in contemporary society? Is the lock on display or not? Is the museum object locked up or not?

locked bicycle on display in the Deutsches Museum Verkehrszentrum, Munich

locked bicycle on display in the Deutsches Museum Verkehrszentrum, Munich

When, eventually, a new set of objects is displayed in place of the bicycle, the lock might be thrown away. It might end up in the basement or off-site storage facility, its fate undecided. It could ultimately become worthless, and discarded. Alternatively, it could be rehabilitated and be recognised as a valuable record of past display practices, and it might start to be treated as a museum object in its own right, with a unique accession number, the application of appropriate conservation techniques, and ultimately safeguarded and secured by locks and keys and other security measures. It could become a design classic, and be loaned to an international touring exhibition. It might become valuable because of its rarity, although rarity in itself does not guarantee the attachment of value to an object. Off-site storage facilities are full of things whose future status is uncertain:

an interesting case, Science Museum off-site storage facility, west London

an interesting case, Science Museum off-site storage facility, west London

It’s quite possible that the modern showcases made of steel, glass and locking mechanisms are the most valuable objects in many museums. It can be the cases, and not the things that they encase, which are worth the most money. Partly this is because new cases have to meet demanding conservation standards: humidity control, shockproofing etc. There is also something of an arms race going on, wherein insurance companies demand ever greater and more expensive locking systems, without which the encased objects cannot be fully insured, with consequent ever rising prices for cases, locks and keys.

One such very expensive display case and locking system was on display last year at the temporary exhibition The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. It itself contained an expensive locking system. No photography was allowed at the exhibition, so I did a drawing:

more locks behind locks: contemporary display case containing bronze self-locking device, second century BC, Western Han dynasty, excavated at the tomb of the King of Chu at Beidongshan in 1986.

more locks behind locks: contemporary display case containing bronze self-locking device, second century BC, Western Han dynasty, excavated at the tomb of the King of Chu at Beidongshan in 1986.

Kings and emperors were buried with objects they would need for the afterlife such as money, food, cooking utensils, musical instruments and slaves, and with objects that would protect them from demons, decay and disturbance: warriors, weapons, jade suits of armour, huge blocking stones, doors and locks. The bronze self-locking device was originally recessed into the ground in the middle of a doorway at the end of a sloping tomb passage constructed over 2000 years ago. A large wooden door would have slid over the device; once closed, the two pivoted teeth automatically raised up, locking the door and preventing it from being opened from the outside.

The wooden door has rotted away, and over the centuries successive waves of looters and archaeologists have removed both the contents of the tombs and the very objects intended to preserve those contents. Even the sturdiest and most expensive locks will fail given enough time. No collection lasts forever, whether it’s in a tomb or in a museum. Perhaps in 2000 years time the bronze self-locking device will be lost, or no longer valued, but the case made of thick glass, steel, alarms and discreetly concealed locks will be intact, on display as a wondrous artefact of a past culture, in a museum in a country that does not yet exist, with labels written in a language yet to be invented, secured by a type of lock that we cannot yet imagine. Or, perhaps both the Chinese lock and the British case will survive and be displayed in a new case in a new museum, a lock behind a lock behind a lock.

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4 Responses to Locked up in the museum

  1. Katie Bowell says:

    I really, really enjoyed this post. And now I want a giant key/fish knife.

  2. nickyreeves says:

    A follow-up note. In this post I claim that “even on the behind-the-scenes tours that many museums run these days, you don’t get to see where the keys are kept.” True, but not always: according to curator/educator Lisa G Corrin, at a 1986 exhibition entitled Damaged Goods: Desire and the Economy of the Object at the New Museum in New York, performance artist Andrea Fraser led guided tours, in character, not of the artworks, but of the museum’s security systems. I would have loved to have seen this, although it probably would have been a bit over my head as I was only seven years old at the time.…

    Fraser’s performance is briefly discussed in Corrin’s 1994 essay “Mining the Museum: Artists Look at Museums, Museums Look at Themselves”, reprinted in Fred Wilson: a Critical Reader (2011) ed. Doro Globus, pp.45-74.

    http://archive.newmuseum.org/index.php/Detail/Occurrence/Show/occurrence_id/133

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Fraser

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Museum

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fred-Wilson-A-Critical-Reader/dp/1905464363

  3. nickyreeves says:

    A further follow-up. Here’s a link to a tweet by Suzanne Fischer @publichistorian showing an early 1800s door lock displayed with a detailed interpretative label, in the permanent exhibition, Becoming Los Angeles, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The text suggests that the lock should be understood both as a symbol of the subjugation and exploitation of Native Americans by Franciscan missionaries, and as a symbol of Native American resistance to the same missionaries.

  4. Pingback: Cabinet of Curio-stories – A 17th century ‘kicking’ lock

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