I've been knocking this question around ever since I attended the panel discussion "Do Museums Still Need Objects?" at the Wexner Center in March. The program featured author and historian Steven Conn (discussing his book of the same name), as well a panel of Central Ohio museum administrators (David E. Chesebrough of COSI Columbus, Burt Logan of the Ohio Historical Society, Nannette V. Maciejunes of the Columbus Museum of Art, and Sherri Geldin of the Wexner Center).
The presentation offered an interesting look at the history of museums in the United States, and also provided some unique insights from the panelists regarding their respective institutions. I'd recommend that anyone affiliated with museums watch the video.
From my perspective, I was a little surprised that no one paid more attention to the effect that Web 2.0 might have on how we respond to museums, objects, and collections. See, I've always been of the mind that the conversations created by art and objects are at least as valuable as the things themselves. In that regard, the thing itself need not always be present.
For example, around the time this panel presentation was taking place, the Ohio Historical Society's Collections Blog was posting a countdown of the "Ten Most Embarrassing Moments in Ohio History" . The posts provided food for thought, highlighted the kind of appreciation for history that's at the Society's core, and generated more than a few comments. It was all done outside the physical museum, and all without direct contact with any objects. I think that kind of thing is worth paying attention to.
As the web allows for more participatory engagement (and 3D imaging becomes more common), physical proximity to an object or collection will matter less and less. "Stuff", or at least museum stuff, will become what they call "geographically neutral". Of course there's still something to be said for being in the presence of a singular object, but it's not something that's always critical to the conversation.
I guess when it comes right down to it, I don't have to stand next to a Thomas Eakins painting to know what it means...though sometimes it is nice.