Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Gift

In his book “The Gift”, Marcel Mauss discussed how social relationships can be organized around three moral obligations: giving, receiving and repaying.

Mauss wrote that “The gift […] is at the same time property and a possession, a pledge and a loan, an object sold and an object bought, a deposit, a mandate, a trust; for it is given only on condition that it will be used on behalf of, or transmitted to, a third person, the remote partner”. (Mauss 1970:22)

“The Gift” was originally published in France in 1925. In it, Mauss provides examples of gift exchange in numerous traditional societies. However, many of the concepts are equally relevant to understanding social behavior in contemporary societies, which can explain the continuing popularity of the book at universities.

Museums have always been involved with gifts. Many museum collections are donation-based, containing objects placed in their care from royalty, diplomats, local communities, interested individuals or corporations. What obligations are involved with these gifts?

A gift to a museum can be seen as a social contract. The donor often wants to make sure that his/her gift will be exhibited to the public, and/or that his/her name will figure prominently at the museum. This might entail trying to make conditions on their gift giving. Museums, on the other hand, often don’t have space or thematic focus to exhibit all of the gifts they receive. A museum will therefore normally try to word a donation contract with a clause saying that the object is freely given without stipulations on subsequent use.

The Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’ Immigration in Paris has created a “galerie des dons” consisting of several exhibition cases on a balcony corridor. Donations can be exhibited here for shorter or longer periods, offering the museum a way of showing prospective gift-givers that THEIR objects may be seen by the public, for a while at least. The “galerie des dons” is incorporated as an integral idea of the museum, and is described in this way in the museum brochure: “The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration is created by the men and women whose story this is, who carry the memory of it and whose individual accounts now form a ‘collection’”.

I think that such a gift-gallery is a great way of fulfilling the moral and legal obligations that a museum can take on when receiving donations. Perhaps other museums will follow the example of la Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration?

You can read more about the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration at Museum 3.0 or Pedimus

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