Opera costumes and the value of object biographies

Publication Date08 October 2018
AuthorHelen J. Waller,David S. Waller
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Opera costumes and the
value of object biographies
Helen J. Waller
University of Sydney, Darlington, Australia, and
David S. Waller
Marketing Discipline Group,
University of Technology Sydney, Broadway, Australia
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to observe the nature of documentation and the description used in
object biographies by an auction house catalogue and an online museum collection database in relation opera
costumes. This research aims to discuss the issues of cultural and economic value in relation to objects in the
art world, and examine examples of object biographies for opera costumes that are sold at an auction and
exhibited in a museum.
Design/methodology/approach The object biographies are compared from an auction house catalogue
and the online museum collection database, based on two factors: costumes worn by a famous singer and
costumes designed by a famous designer.
Findings This studyidentified the valuation methodsof auction houses and museums, includingaccounting
for the market valueand fair value, as well as social and culturalvalues. The nature of the documentationalso
clearly shows the different purpose of the object biographies. For auction houses the biography needs to be
short and specificas it provides sufficient information and is read out at the auction, while art catalogues can
also be usedby experts as part of the conversationto understanding heritagevalue, and will also be viewed and
used by researchers, investors, other auction housespecialists and art world professionals.
Research limitations/implications By comparing two institutions, auction houses and museums, this
study has shown that the information that is documented and how it is presented in object biographies is
determined by the goals of the institutions. These goals may vary or overlap in providing information,
demonstrating cultural importance, to be spoken allowed to an audience and make sales, or to educate,
conserve and preserve.
Practical implications This study shows that to some extent museum online databases display their
collection removed from cultural context, with an isolated image of the item, and in an organised, digitally
accessible manner. A potential implication is that museums should not only digitally catalogue an item, but
also provide discussion and the cultural background and significance of the item.
Social implications Auction catalogues are written for a specific event (the auction), while the online
museum collection database is meant to be a permanent record, which aims to digitally preserve objects and
provide access to images and information to a general audience, and further could be edited with amendments
or new information when future research or events lead to potential updates.
Originality/value This study adds to the discourse on approaches to the understanding of costumes as an
art object of significance and their potential cultural, economic and heritage value, particularly as represented
in the documentation of object biographies.
Keywords History, Cataloguing, Museums, Value analysis, Written communications, Catalogues
Paper type Research paper
Clothing is not just a form of fashion, it can also be a form of art that can have social,
cultural, historic and economic value. A dress from a specific time period, especially if it was
worn or designed by a famous person, can be of great interest to people and collectors. It can
be seen as a piece of beauty, a work of art, an item that evokes memories, an object of history
and even a smart investment. As an object in a museum, it also provides us with an example
of information as thing(Buckland, 1991; Latham, 2012). This indicates that there is a value
in the dress that goes beyond the cost to produce it. Furthermore, as the years go by, the
dress can become an important piece of popular culture which points to the heritagization of
fashion. While for some people the concept of heritage means old pots, rusty relics and dusty
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 74 No. 6, 2018
pp. 1162-1174
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-02-2018-0032
Received 23 February 2018
Revised 30 May 2018
Accepted 2 June 2018
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