The „Old Guard“ or why registrars are so picky about words

guard-206487_640Recently I took part in an interesting discussion on Linkedin that followed an article by Paul Orselli called „How Can Museums Shift, If The “Old Guard” Doesn’t Budge?“

It was a heated debate and suddenly it occurred to me that at least some of the disagreements sprung from different interpretations of the term „Old Guard“.

In regards to museums it can mean:

  • Decision-makers at the top of museums that have held this position for years.
  • Museum professionals who have been doing their job for many years.
  • People who hold tight to norms, procedures and practices that were established a long time ago.
  • People who are skeptical towards trying new things and believe it’s best to do things the way it’s always been done.

I bet your first reaction if you read that four points is: oh, yeah, I know those guys! And I guess this was exactly what Paul had in mind when he gave the title to his article. On a second look this isn’t half the homogenous description it seems to be. And this is where the issues start:

There are „old“ museums professionals who continuously try new things. There are decision-makers who would like to change their museum completely, from roof to cellar and don’t let anything be like it was before. There are young museum professionals who are skeptical towards new things and want to preserve their museum the way it is. There are museum professionals of all ages that believe that some norms, procedures and practices are in place for a good reason and should remain untouched – and are open at the same time for new ways in visitor engagement and outreach projects.

Against this background it is easy to see that a discussion about the „Old Guard“ is likely to go off track. As someone who cares for collections and is very critical towards everything that might put an artifact at risk, I would almost immediately categorize myself as member of the „Old Guard“. On the other hand I believe that „We’ve always done it that way!“ is one of the most dangerous sentences in every language. We should always try new things, if we don’t try, we can’t improve. So, someone who thinks of the „Old Guard“ as an aggregation of all the four points mentioned above will put me in a drawer I don’t belong.

How does all this relate to registrar’s work? I think it’s a good example why we who deal with museum documentation are putting such a great emphasize on using the right terminology and categories. It’s also the reason why we try to use standardized terms and avoid slang and metaphors. If we who live in the same era and work in the same field understand each other wrong because we use a term that can be interpreted in different ways, imagine what that means for future generations with a totally different background.

So, next time you overhear a conversation between your curator and your database manager whether it’s a „Jeep“ or a „vehicle, off-road“, keep smiling but bear in mind that this might be a conversation that will be indeed relevant for the future.


As a side note on the article:

It’s always startling that discussions concerning „new ways in museums“ nearly inevitably are pushed towards technology discussions. Surprisingly enough by both the believers that technology will solve every problem as well as the believers that technology is the downfall of humanity. In my opinion this leads to nothing more than driving participants to take sides with no middle ground to lead fruitful discussions.

If you ask me, we should always place the question „What do we want to achieve?“ first, before we look for tools to achieve it. And we shouldn’t allow anything to narrow our view – neither a gadget that we “have to” implement in our museum no matter what nor the assumption that all technology is distracting attention from the artifacts.


4 thoughts on “The „Old Guard“ or why registrars are so picky about words”

  1. I can definitely see myself on both ends of the spectrum. I try to think outside of the box and usually succeed in facilitating access, exhibits, and program use of collections objects and archival material in many different ways. However, sometimes I do have to come in from the “old school” side of things and advocate for old fashioned collections protection and care. Usually I can collaborate with colleagues to find a middle ground. But the lines have to be clear to everyone – and the reasons for them. Recently I took a humor approach to getting museum staff to consume or take home their Halloween candy. I forwarded a particularly graphic image of beetle larvae in an old chocolate candy from a webinar presentation presented by a respected colleague. it made the point, candy was consumed while fresh and the excess was placed in ziplock bags. Problem solved.

    1. Hi Sharon,

      what a wonderful way to get the message across! In fact, I think if the “why” is communicated clearly it’s most of the time no issue to reach middle ground. Even our local TV team called for gloves, recently. Mission Accomplished!


  2. Thank you! Our archive policy committee and collection caretakers (curators) recognized the need for shared terminology, written policies (thank you, SPECTRUM), but the IT team tries to employ these terms, that they then imbue with meaning that is at odds with conventional museum biz uses. So, there’s a push/pull between the camps in the ways we try to organize metadata and collections. I’d be interested to know more about how small or mid-sized museums are dealing with this.

    1. Thanks Victoria. In my opinion, IT should look to make it fit to our requirements, not the other way round. Or, better, both parties try to understand where to aim at, together. But this is an extremely interesting topic, I will take it to our group at linkedin and maybe some others will show up with ideas.

      Best wishes

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