An excavation of the store rooms

of the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford

April 2007 - March 2008

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The Ark of the Covenant stored away at the end of Steven Spielberg's 1981 "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

A gallery -

The original project description

Didn't you ever wonder what treasures lay hidden and locked in the basement of a museum?

Vast collections in museums around the world are rarely, if ever, seen by the public. The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford only exhibits a fraction of the thousands of wonderful paintings, prints, sculptures, decorative works and ethnographic items it owns. This is a project to unlock the storerooms and explore the century of collecting effort that lies hidden. But there is too much to easily comprehend, so 52 artifacts have been chosen at random as the basis for a temporary exhibition and web site that weaves together observations, details, and stories through this alternative collection.

"Behind the locked door" is curated by Michael Shanks, a Professor of Archaeology and Director of Stanford Humanities Lab. He is working with a team of students and museum members who are following their own interests and researches in discovering connections that run through the 52 things. Anyone who has something to say is invited to contribute to the interactive web site and join this museological dreamwork.


Vast collections in museums around the world never leave the store room. There certainly isn't enough room to display everything. Many items are not thought to be of a quality to warrant exhibition. They may be from an excavation and held for research purposes only, held in trust for the future. Sometimes they are no longer valued because the reason for their collection is not now found interesting. Sometimes things are kept hidden out of embarrassment.

The Cantor Center's basement storerooms are a hive of activity and a model of organization. There are thousands of dearly cared for artifacts. This isn't the case in many museums. There's too much stuff and not enough help. My experience of researching ancient Corinthian pottery in the Mediterranean [link] made me a witness to the vast mess and debris that is predominantly what is left of the past.

We need the past. Memories make us who we are. And when there are no memories we have diaries, written accounts and documents, pictures perhaps, but, above all, things. History, and who we are, lies in the material remains of the past. This is the reality of much history - dearly cared for in the best of circumstances, but predominantly ruined, never seen, mouldering for lack of interest and insight, because records have been lost, because not much was known about the artifact in the first place, or because the label was chewed off by a rat (it was precisely this that led to my first work in a museum!).

This is a project to unlock the storeroom of a museum and see what can be done, creatively, with what we find.

December 2008 - a comment on the project

Things didn't go quite as I expected! - Behind the Locked Door - a commentary

Project design

What do we want to happen?

Unlocking the door is a key metaphor for the project - releasing the artifacts from the way they are conventionally seen. The project actively encourages creative responses to collection based upon personal experience and interest.

Of course, storerooms fascinate. The project encourages us to think of what it means to rumage through the attic, stumbling upon the overlooked, looking for one thing and finding another, recollecting the forgotten.

Another metaphor is excavation - unlocking the door, opening the cupboard, peeling back the covers, turning back the clock to find what may have been hidden.

The project assumes a strong association between collection and storytelling. The invitation is to find something in the 3 of 52 artifacts and weave a story around them.

The project has no agenda in the way of wanting certain kinds of story to be told. We just want rich engagements to take place. To this end the project encourages exploration of any kind of connection, interest, feature of an artifact, personal, idiosyncratic, whatever.

This might include an exploration of the life histories of things - where they came from and how they ended up in the collection. And the intersection of such life histories with our own.

What are the issues? Why do this?

Animating the archive

Archives - the collections at the heart of our experience of history - need to be brought alive. As well as looking after the remains of the past for the future, we might make something of the past in the present.

Opening up the importance of context

A crucial issue is context . Artifacts become tautologies if we don't know where they came from, the circumstances of their making, use, exchange and discard, who cared for them, what became of them, their life history. Tautology - because we only confirm what we already know when we assign an artifact to a class simply on the basis of what its form tells us. This Corinthian perfume jar is ... a Corinthian perfume jar! Albeit a beautiful/ugly/different/regular one.

Connecting collection with storytelling

Collections and archives come to life when we tell stories about them. When we connect things to contexts in this way.

Revealing value

This project asks questions about the character of collection. Why do some things fascinate? What values lie behind collection?

Things are collected when they are seen to have some value. The art museum is often interested in aesthetic value, how an artifact is a testament to an artist's skills, and to the taste of the collector in acquiring such a fine example.

How interesting is this? There are many different kinds of value - ways of finding interest in an artifact because of how it speaks to you, of its qualities and experiences, how these connect with your own.

This project encourages us to explore different kinds of value through the members of a collection.

Revealing the personal

Value always also has a personal dimension. It is how you connect with a thing, how you find it of value.

This project is about exploring such personal responses.

Richer accounts - challenging the standard stories

Much collection and exhibition starts and ends with familiar stories. The history of art; the story of an artist; the variety of a type of valued artifact; the history of a region.

This project begins with a random selection from items in store, not with a story or contribution to art history, nor with some intrinsic quality, though all of these may have originally led to an item joining the museum.

The project sets us the task of finding connections and weaving stories. Its emphasis is upon the process of building a collection.

This is quite a different basis to exhibition. We expect the it to generate richer experiences and stories.

Redeming the past

Think of all this as a kind of rescue or salvage archaeology, an animation of the cultural archive that is a museum, a redemption of the loss inherent in the ruin that is history, making good the gaps, the missing pieces.

A note on randomness, history and time

The 52 artifacts have been chosen using random numbers generated by monitoring the radioactive decay of Caesium 137.

Why? Randomness is a fascinating issue. Technically no deterministic device such as a computer can generate truly random numbers - sequences that will never repeat. Where then are we to find true randomness? If there's any way at all a physical system (subatomic particle, nucleus, atom, molecule, star, or galaxy) can reduce its energy without violating a law of physics, quantum mechanics tells us it will. What it doesn't tell us is when. There is no way to predict such quantum time intervals. It is random - a kind of quantum noise.

So, on this basis of random quantum time, we can make a truly random selection from the Cantor collection.

Circumstantially it raises the question of the structure of the collection. There have been reasons for the acquisition of every item - the systems of value mentioned above. But, given the vagaries of opportunity in purchasing and donating items regularly found in art collections, the sum of all the decisions is indeterminate.

Think also of the temporal noise in the collection - times and dates of origin, of loss and discard, of archaeological discovery, of purchase, of accession, of exhibition, of viewing in the storeroom, of description ... the random noise of history.

Walter Benjamin's vision of history was of a great pile of debris being swept forward by more or less deterministic forces. That debris is, arguably, structured by such random association. - John Walker's random number service

More information - randomness and quantum time

note also - tagging in museums - [link]

Locked door - how to make a personal exhibition

Locked door - project members

Michael Shanks

Sebastian De Vivo - Stanford Classics

Sid Carter - Stanford Archaeology Center -

Cori Fenwick - Stanford Classics -

Meg Butler - Stanford Classics -

Allyson Stewart - Stanford STS (Science,technology and society program) -

Members of Castilleja High School [link] - Emily Colvin [email], Liz Harmon [email], Morgan Jones [email], Christina LaRoy [email], Rachel Lo [email], Amber Lombard [email], Roark Luskin [email], Laura Swenson [email], Kirsten Urrutia [email], Bonnie Wong [email], Hannah Yelton [email]

Project members mailing list - [email]

The Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford -


Behind the locked door - notes - Benjamin's magical encyclopedia

Michael Shanks - Traumwerk - viral association and dreamwork - some design principles

heretical empirics - an archaeological sensitivity to things

katachresis - a technique in an archaeological poetics

See also

Some related projects

Burtynsky at Stanford - an interactive exhibition

43 relics - dumpster diving

The locked door: San José 2004 - a forensic portfolio

Life Squared an exploration of the art museum of the future - imagine your own in an online world!

Commentary from my blog:

Intellectual property and remix culture - [link]

Collecting culture and intellectual property - [link]

Collecting culture and the new art museum - [link]

Issues of cultural property - the tensions [link]

Looting Bagdad Museum - stories wanted, not things [link]

Uploaded Image

Greek oil jars, National Museum, Athens. Its columned and pedimented front is reputedly the architectural model for the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford