al languages have essentially three component parts, one of which is the direct use of signs and symbols in the form of objects and space while the other two, non-verbal communication such as gestures and body language and verbal communication such as speech and writing, can also be preserved somewhat in the objects that are left behind and can help in determining the culture from which the object originated. Because objects share a role in the interrelated social communication modes of a particular society, the interpretation of these objects may differ from one society to the next or even one time period to the next. The way in which it is interpreted can not only provide significant contextual clues to the society from which it was produced, but can also reflect the understanding of the society attempting to place the object within its correct contextual space. In addition, that exact same object, for example a specific vase, may take on different contextual meanings as it passes through time, originally used as a container for liquid, later taking on the ashes of a dearly departed relative and finally symbolizing perhaps a golden age in the progression of a nation. “[An object] can never convey one single message, uncorrected, unambiguous and unqualified. Different social perceptions, needs and changing attitudes will see to that.”2 The nature of the collection and the context in which the museum or collection places its artwork for display to the public can thus have a significant effect upon the interpretation and perceived value of the work. These ideas can be seen when comparing the extensive collection of a museum such as the Louvre to the eclectic and less organized Medici Collection.
Until relatively recently, the concept of art museums in which great works of artistic merit were held in the name of the public trust was a foreign idea.