Frozen biographies

International Council of Museums’ current definition describes museum main function as an institution “which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment”. Understanding heritage as a composite of past stories, many times these stories for different reasons become tangible or objects. The abilities of these objects as storytellers are very great and museums collect and preserves them for this reason.

Consciousness is what makes us humans, but our consciousness is in present continuous and our way to make sense of the interminable sequence of events that we face is through storytelling. The Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio defines this process as “the sky-wide projection of a magic movie, part documentary and part fiction, otherwise known as the conscious human mind” (Damasio, 2010). Our interpretation and sense of ourselves constructs our world and the accumulation of life experiences solidifies a strong sense of ourselves. This is the “autobiographical self” that is a construction of all the “movies” in the brain. It is the way we make sense of our emotions outside of the moment we experience them and it shapes our view of the past and the future.

Storytelling is a human universal, important as an individual but also as the basis of life in human communities and societies. It is also a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms. In a recent investigation, anthropologist Daniel Smith of University College London conducted a number of experiments to determine the power and purpose of storytelling. Daniel Smith focus the study on a Filipino hunter-gatherer population in Agta, where the communities convey messages relevant to coordinating behaviour in a foraging ecology, such as cooperation, sex equality and egalitarianism. He divided each of these communities in two groups: the first were asked to vote for the best storytellers in their group and the second were asked to play a resource allocation game. The results were surprising, as the researcher wrote, that “camps with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers, were associated with increased levels of cooperation” (Smith et al., 2017).

As noted above, storytelling is crucial for mankind. There are different artforms to communicate stories, writing and oral are the common. But objects, as products of human creation, also have the ability of being great storytellers. This particular skill of objects is enhanced when a museum decides to include the object in a collection, as Indian-American anthropologist Arjun Appadurai said, these “are congealed moments in a longer social trajectory” (Appadurai, 2006). For this reason, objects are frozen biographies in a prehistory before to their stage in the museum. “We might think about all the different life-stages of the object from its creation, who made it, why, and where, how it was used and understood, how it was acquired by different owners, what journeys it undertook, how it entered a museum or gallery, its treatment within the institution, whether it was disposed or whether it lives on in a perpetual display” (Mason, Robinson and Emma, 2018).

It is responsibility of museums to preserve these frozen biographies through restoration and conservation. In fact, this responsibility is also included in the ICOM definition for museum. Even this act of preservation marks a different stage in the object biography, “they are a testimony to the fact that the very objecthood of art objects requires action in order to resist the historical processes that turn one kind of thing into another kind of thing unless one is committed to the project of maintaining the work of art as such — a permanent object and a repository of permanence” (Appadurai, 2006).

Some of these objects turned into frozen biographies have the peculiarity of having a great meaning for the communities they represent, even the whole mankind. Dr Peter L. Jakab, chief curator of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, describes this powerful meaning as a charisma. This charisma arouses great interest and respect from the audience, large enough to have the ability to silence a gathering. This is a common reaction that happens around historical objects such as Neil Armstrong’s space suit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum or art masterpieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at The Louvre Museum.

In addition to this set of skills around significance assigned to objects, the museum understood as a continent, as a place that contains objects, can be at the same time object. It’s the fact that happens to a large number of heritage buildings but being its maximum expression for object-museum such as historical ships (for example the Cutty Sark in London) and architectural masterpieces (such as Guggenheim in Bilbao by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry). These buildings have the ability to be storytellers and at the same time transform the significance of the objects they contain. They are macro biographies that involve several micro biographies.

In conclusion, storytelling is vital for the construction of our consciousness and has an important key in communities and society, for example, fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms. The objects have biographies embedded in them, which moves to a frozen stage when museums decide to include them in their collection. The potential of objects as storytellers is great and they have a relevant position for mankind. This is why objects matter and museums, as caretakers of objects, have a responsibility to conserve, interpret and display the object, sometimes in perpetuity.


  • ICOM (2020). Creating a new museum definition – the backbone of ICOM, [online], Available at:[Accessed 06 Oct. 2020]
  • Damasio, A. (2010). Self Comes to Mind:Constructing the Conscious Brain. Pantheon.
  • Kluger, J. (2017). How Telling Stories MakesUs Human. Time, [online], Available at: [Accessed 06 Oct. 2020].
  • Smith, D., Schlaepfer, P., Major, K., Dyble,M., Page, A., Thompson, J., Chaudhary, N.,Deniz, G., Mace, R., Astete, L., Ngales, M., Vinicius, L. and Bamberg,A. (2017). Cooperation and the evolution of hunter-gatherer storytelling. Nature, [online]. Available at:[Accessed 9 Oct. 2020].
  • Mason, R. Robinson, A. and Emma, C. (2018) Museum and Gallery Studies – The basics. Oxon: Routledge, pp.54-85.
  • Appadurai, A. (2006). The Thing Itself. Available at:[Accessed 05 Oct. 2020].
  • Jackab, P. (2020). Current Issues in Museums and Galleries: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, lecture notes, MA Museums, Galleries and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster, delivered 5 Oct 2020.
  • Alberti, S. J. M. M. (2005) Objects and the Museum. Isis, vol. 96, no. 4, pp. 559–571. JSTOR, [Accessed 06 Oct. 2020].

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