Understanding Provenance

Did you get our advisory package that was mailed out to your museum on March 27?  In that package we included a Tip-Sheet about Understanding Provenance.

What is Provenance? Why is it important?

Have you ever been to a museum where you saw an object and wondered what it was? Did you ask? Was there an answer?

What if they told you they had no clue what it was or where it came from? What would you think then?

If there was no story, no information, nothing attached to an object, you would probably wonder why it was even in the museum! Was that object important?

Provenance, the source or origin of an object, helps to establish such information. By knowing where/who an object came from and what it was used for, you can then understand its importance and convey it to others. That’s what provenance gathering and research is all about; getting information and telling stories.  Turning a mundane object into something that has a much larger story to tell. 

In our Tip-Sheet, we tell the story of Gerhard Herzberg and his

spectroscope. I myself learned only of this story through lecture given by Dr. David Pantalony, as recorded at the Martime Museum of the Atlantic last year. There he talks about the incredible discovery of Gerhard Herzberg’s machine and how it went from being an unknown piece of machinery at the university to a link of an incredible story.  If only all of our museum objects had that kind of story to tell…

Wait! They CAN! Ask donors questions about their objects; complete research in any way that you can.  Learn about a process or procedure that previously was unknown to you.  Who knows, maybe the objects in your collections have secret stories to tell.       

Photo: University of Saskatchewan Archives, Photograph Collection, A-3234           


Pantalony, David, “Valuable Belongings: The Origins of Gerhard Herzberg’s Spectroscopic Studies in Canada,” Bunsen-Magazin, (January 2013): 34-35

Pantalony, David, “Science and its Publics Part 3: Provenance and the Role of the Public Museum: How Life Stories of Artifacts Challenge Traditional Accounts of Science and History. “, http://ccepa.ca/video.html

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