Thursday, November 4, 2010

Material Culture Minute: Collecting, De-collecting, and Collecting Again

The marketplace places a premium on objects with high monetary value---eighteenth-century high chest made by the famous Philadelphia cabinetmaker that retains its original finish, its maker's label, and the family provenance, and has never been repaired.

But what about the everyday stuff? The quickly made, unmarked copper match case from some decade in the nineteenth century? That stuff survives as well, but why? What does is tell as about the past and the people who lived in the past, and how is what it tells us different from or similar to what the high chest can tell us? Will the everyday stuff of today survive for the museums of the future? Does it matter? Does it need a story (a provenance) to be worth preserving? Does it need to be beautiful? Should individuals collect? How should they collect? If they collect, how and when should they discard?

Just yesterday, my boyfriend and I were talking about a museum interpretation exercise of "common" objects he completed for a course about museum exhibitions. (I'll leave it to him to correct my gross generalization of his project.) His instructor raised thought provoking questions about the types of messages such an interpretation may send to museum visitors about their own collecting, whether people should collect and why, and what types of things people should collect.

Today, according to an article about an artist published in the New York Times, Corinne May Botz seems to have devised an ingenious and thoughtful means through which to accumulate everyday stuff with stories. In short, Botz is a photographer who invites individuals to send her objects (along with their stories) that they have had a difficult time "de-accessioning." In return, Botz sends a photograph of the objects. In addition to raising questions about the value of everyday objects, the article also raises questions as to how the culture of hoarding has changed over time. How is today's hoarder's accumulating different from yesterday's hoarder's accumulating? How does the make-up of their hoards differ?

I can't help but think of what a treasure trove Ms. Botz' collection would be for today's modern or contemporary curator of collections or tomorrow's twentieth- and twenty-first-century curator of collections.

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