Monday, November 24, 2008

The Museum of You (1)

In an earlier post on objects and memory, I pointed out that our household is not blessed with an abundance of precious heirlooms. Other than an old Roman oil lamp, whose value is more symbolic than monetary, we simply don't own very many old things: you could very reasonably blame a combination of not being wealthy enough (nor, perhaps, inclined) to purchase such things and the fact that we haven't been completely orphaned yet. On my side of the family for instance my mother is the custodian of a fair collection of stuff, of varying sentimental, aesthetic and economic value. But at this stage it's the lamp, a pocket watch that my father used to carry around in his late teens in an effort to pose as a dandy (a picture that I am simply not able to reconcile with the person I knew, but I have unimpeachable witnesses) and a book dated 1824 entitled Conversations of Lord Byron: noted during a residence with his lordship at Pisa in the years 1821 and 1822 by Thomas Medwin, Esq. The book was a present from mum, who bought it at an antiques dealer's in Milan in an effort - I think - to convey her regret at having given me such grief when I abandoned the study of physics for the humanities. (For the record, it wasn't a difficult decision: I would have most certainly become the world's worst physicist. And I can do far less damage as a humanist.)

As it turns out, we're not taking exceptionally good care of any of these objects, but we could be doing much worse. I have it on the authority of Saving Stuff: How to Care for And Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms and Other Prized Possessions, a book co-authored by Louisa Jaggar, who came up with the idea, and Don Williams, senior conservator at the Smithsonian Institution.

The message of the book is simple. As Williams explains:
Saving Stuff is about preserving and maintaining "the museum of you". This museum is made up of the objects that have special value for you. I can't stop an earthquake, flood, or alien invasion, but I can share how to prevent most homegrown catastrophes as well as how to go about saving stuff: comic books, wedding dresses, baseball cards, furniture, stamps, papers, film, pictures, records, DVDs, CDs, dollhouses, flags, and weird and wacky things like Cousin Cecil's African water buffalo head or your private collection of sheep's eyeballs kept by your grandfather in mayonnaise jars. (p. xxvi)
'Objects that have special value for you' is of course a phrase very close to my sensibility. Indeed, being in charge of one's museum means having to make the full range of curatorial decisions: not only how to preserve an object and what measure of use it should be allowed to retain, if any, but also and in the first place what is in fact worth caring for and preserving based on one's resources and the space available.

I find the figure of the curator very interesting, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, in that I like finding out about what makes things decay: it turns out that for the most part it's light, and little animals, and a biggish animal (us) and use. Whereas metaphorically the curator - more so than the librarian - is an ideal character to study when thinking about how to remember the things that matter, as faithfully as possible, for as long as possible, while at the same time allowing them to be accessed and enjoyed.

And further, oftentimes the museum is the product of an ideology, and in is charge of constructing a narrative - the New Zealand reader will no doubt think: Te Papa. Both of these aspects, ideology and narrative, are not so readily associated with the other chief institution-come-metaphor, the library, and are mostly overlooked in discussions concerning personal memory, except when this memory is externalised in the form of a memoir.

But reflecting on the nature of the museum achieves a little more still: for a museum is also, non-metaphorically, a place in charge of preserving a collective past, so it is a locus of memory in its own right. The ensuing feedback loop with the museum-as-metaphor is productive in that it encourages reflection on the relationship between individual and shared memory, between history and art and their transmission.

Consider also this: typically a museum is in charge of storing artefacts with semiotic - but not predominantly linguistic - value. Try not to think of the Magna Carta or the paintings of Colin McCahon, for a moment; or if you must, try to think of them for their material value, to the extent that it differs from the value that you would assign to a transcription of the former or a photographic copy of the latter. And now consider personal memory also as a place where one attempts to make sense of meanings conveyed by concrete things, and not just at the abstract level of the written or spoken word. You can mentally detach the words from a page, often without loss of meaning; but you cannot quite so easily detach meaning from a statue or a building or an urban landscape. And because materiality is what is lost in mental representation - and mental representations are the stuff of memory - it is critical that we not allow it to be forgotten. We have to educate ourselves to think in the three geometrical dimensions, plus the many other physical dimensions of hunger and thirst and pleasure and pain and so forth, to develop a whole, functional conception of our environment. There are obvious social and political implications regarding the levels of abstraction one chooses to engage in.

Metaphors are important, they are tools for everyday thinking. And when it comes to memory, the computer has arguably (look: I'm arguing it) become the dominant metaphor, almost to the exclusion of all others. And it can be useful, like any other disciplined, self-reflexive way of thinking, I won't deny that. If you're the kind of person who likes to think of reading as an act of uploading of information into the mind, and of writing as downloading, you'll get no quarrel from me. But like all metaphors, this one too can be stretched to occupy and undue amount of conceptual space, and it has been.

Excessive allegiance to the computer metaphor has lead to reductionist notions such as the idea that everything can be digitised without loss of meaning or value, and that the digital repository is coterminous and coextensive with the mind's. The particular madness that lies this way is of course the great mind uploading project, aka immortality-on-a-hard-drive, a brand of post-religious fundamentalism that will make regular appearances on this blog as the object of varying degrees of ridicule.

But all in due course. For the moment, let's go back to the museum of my household. The collection thus far: a hundred years old pocket watch, an ancient oil lamp, an early nineteenth century book from England. And it turns out we're not doing too badly, according to Mr. Williams. The book sits on a shelf where it doesn't gather an undue amount of dust, nor is plagued by excessive humidity or extremes of temperature. The light that falls on it from the only fixture in the room is within the requisite number of foot-candles. We could do better by laying the book flat or wrapping it in acid-free paper, especially the latter; better still by creating a special box for it. But both options involve concealing, and we're not into that. The lamp is easy to care for: it sits on a shelf, gets dusted regularly with a brush. And the watch lies wrapped in cloth inside a drawer whose microclimate happens to be fairly stable, and that's just about ideal. Its only forays occur when my oldest son asks to be allowed to have a look at it and wind it up. Saving Stuff cautions of course against letting children within a nautical mile of something you care for, but we don't let the imperative of conservation impair the boy's ability to connect - however tenuously and symbolically - with his nonno.

What about you, dear reader? If there are any objects that are of value to you and you'd like some advice on how to take care of them, Mr. Williams will be here all week.

Don Williams, Louisa Jaggar. Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions. New York: Fireside, 2005.


merc said...

Objects are just things, the world is full of things.
Hey I think I won The Eddie 5, can you please give it to the first person you meet, saying nothing other than Things! The World is full of things, hehe.

Giovanni said...

Sorry, Merc, you've gots to follow the protocol. So far we've had two inelegibles and one abdicant, so Sir Ed will keep burning a hole in my pocket for the time being.

merc said...

Beware Wotan with your contracts and spear!
Me, follow protocol, is that a real thing?

objectdart said...

"The particular madness that lies this way is of course the great mind uploading project, aka immortality-on-a-hard-drive, a brand of post-religious fundamentalism"

while i don't disagree that the singularity is a post-religious fundamentalism, the application of it is fascinating.

instead of seeing it as an uploading of minds, i see it as a transfer of human consciousness out of "meatspace" into a virtual heaven. this means that in application the objects and the desires they carry will be brought with us into the singularity.

witness snow crash. the virtual world is just a direct transfer of meatspace consciousness to e-space. an while this was a reasonable assumption to make, stephenson is surpassed by stross who sees e-space warping the notion of objects themselves, so that their value is only in providing representations that actually anchor consciousness, and enable communication. consequently, objects become motile, and their dimensions and meaning moving in linear time, accompanying the evolution or otherwise of consciousness itself.

it's a potentially very scarey, very brave new world

Giovanni said...

Oh, I agree it's fascinating. Hans Moravec, to name one of the fathers of the idea, is a very compelling thinker. And you make a great point about the reinvention of space and materiality in Stross and Stephenson - to which I'd add Greg Egan, Permutation City is the best narrative treatment yet in my view. But I think it also needs to be forcefully critiqued. The idea that you can separate the body from the human, and the material from an economy, at the end of the day is just tosh. Dangerous tosh, too, it's libertarianism in hyperdrive with a real-world influence, leading a lot of well-meaning people to believe that what the children of the third world need is a laptop - so they can realise their being digital - as opposed to food and sanitation. Fanciful abstractions and leaps of fancy do have a political dimension, too, and this is a patrician project if I've ever heard one

But I'll talk about this at some length and hopefully there'll be some locking of horns then, because I think it's an important aspect of the culture to mull over. For now if you follow the link in the post I've listed some initial references, for and against.

harvestbird said...

Arthur with puppy teeth
snipped in half
the jet pendant I brought back
from my trip to Whitby --

while Piper, our house guest,
tore at the corner
the hall wallpaper
just outside the bathroom door --

Millie, little firebrand,
ate the guts from two couches
thereby colonising
their sentimental value --

the twenty-dollar desk
at which I long-time annotated
the poems of Robin Hyde
had its leg chewed back by Evie --

while Eddie, and Fern,
puppies of the LolDog age
were surely the pure forms
for whom we coined Nom Nom Nom --

My house is a museum
of chewings, tearings and shreddings,
molar marks and indentations:
true stories of heroic animals.

Jake said...

My grandmother's trenching tool, which was used by her father in the trenches of World War One, was stolen from her in the glade that she has single-handedly turned from informal naval rubbish tip to native forest.

This happened three or four years ago.

Trenching tool aside, as the family historian (that is to say, the member of my generation of the family that is training to become a historian), I stand to inherit a number of letters, photos, and other memorabilia from my family's past, including a certificate of participation in WW1 that was issued to my great-grandfather (whose trenching tool was subsequently nabbed by some Devonport reprobate). No archivist I, so perhaps I should pick up a copy of this book before these artefacts come to me.

Paul said...

I grew up among old things, heirlooms, and became a curator of old things, works of art. But, since coming to the New World, I have become less attached to objects.

And I agree that this notion of uploading your consciousness is tosh: a remnant of that old mind-body duality thing which we should have left behind. And tosh too is the no-child-left-behind-without-a-laptop fad.

Sergio said...

My museum will consist of an old journal with empty pages.

I should begin to pay more attention to things that can be considered heirlooms.

Jon said...

You might be interested in the documentary OBJECTS AND MEMORY, which has been broadcast in the US on PBS (Public Broadcasting System). The film is about how ordinary things become transformed into irreplaceable conveyors of identity, experience, memory, and aspiration. It follows curators in the aftermath of 9/11 and other momentous recent historical events as they struggle with preserving meaningful contemporary artifacts. The film and educational initiative are designed to help people better understand and appreciate the physical things that represent what they most value. For more information (or DVD purchases) contact me at The website is currently in the process of revision.

Giovanni said...

I was hoping to dispense some book advice but the chapter on photographs is so long and detailed that I would be breaching all sorts of copyrights by running through the steps. Briefly, and perhaps too obviously, You'll have to first of all identify the different types of paper prints and film you're dealing with, and take the appropriate steps for each. Although in the case of prints, in an album protected from the dust and light (and away from food) is pretty much the alpha and omega. In the case of the negatives, beware of cellulose nitrate (in terms of age some might be in that format) because if you leave it lying around eventually it will explode. I'm not kidding. A google search will alert you of the dangers there.

Aside from the danger of combustion, rule one for saving photographs is: duplicate. And I couldn't agree more wholeheartedly with Mr. Williams there. I don't despair to find the original at some point, which as an object has an intrinsic and irreplaceable history, but as of right now this photo exists only in digital form. And as much as that makes me want to cry, the prospect of not having the image at all would be devastating.

Yay! poem and... Mr. Williams of course guards also against keeping dogs near the things you value. But stuff him, right? Canine (and infantile) interventions can become part of object history too.

But, since coming to the New World, I have become less attached to objects.

I go through phases about that myself. When I grew up, thinking I would never leave Italy, I was one hell of a hoarder. Books and records, mainly, but other stuff too. Then living with a kiwi there and with the prospect of coming over here, I slowly inoculated myself to caring less and started giving things away. In the end we came with very little, and entirely the wrong stuff in many respects (I'll post about that). Still, now I've grown very attached to some family objects. My sister and I will eventually have to quarrel over my nonna's single piece cherry wood rolling pin, which is as tall as she was (nonna started off taller, but then shrunk over time). And there are plenty of things I'm planning to bring over here.

An old journal with blank pages... that's a lovely image.

Thank you very much for that, I'll definitely check it out and hopefully review it here. Will also keep an eye on the website. If anybody knows of New Zealand broadcast dates, it's the kind of thing I'd want to promote as well.

Grunt said...

Perhap my most precious object is the doll house I inherited from my Grandmother. It's not valuable nor is it old. When I was a child my Grandmother decided to make doll house furniture as a hobby. The house consists of a living room with a fireplace, a piano, a sofa and a wing-backed chair. Then there is a dining room where my grandmother carved 6 queen-anne style chairs and a dinning room table with a matching hutch and sideboard. There is a bedroom is hand-woven wicker furniture including two beds, a desk and a rocking chair.

I'm sure it has no value except for my love of it.

Speaking of which, it's time for me to put the little Christmas tree in the house. She made the tree as well.

Giovanni said...

But of course, that's the whole point - the museum of you contains things that are of value to you. So you're still going to want to preserve it, and Mr. Williams warn that dollshouses are tricky because, and I quote "they are essentially large boxes and are easily smashed". So you have to take that into account when deciding where to put it (not under a hanging anvil or other sword-of-Damocles type contraption, I assume). Different curatorial practices are then involved in caring for the wood, carboard, plastic and painted metal components. You're supposed to clean and wax the wood regularly, for instance.

Di Mackey said...

Beautiful writing. I knew I needed time to sit down and read quietly ... finally, I found it.

Samuel said...

Ok... how can I best preserve a Brownie 8mm film camera, along with instruction booklet and carrybag? It's in pretty good shape but tips on how to keep it that way would be appreciated.

Also, quite a few rolls of 8mm film from various sources (including, I think, early days at NZBC).

Giovanni said...

Mr. Williams on movie cameras: like all machines with moving parts, you've got to lubricate them. Place a drop of lightweight machine oil where the axle of the turning part goes through a bearing or housing block. Use powder graphite for everything else that moves, brushing it on the point of contact with an artist's brush. And store in a clean, cool, dry place with as little oxygen as possible.

If you want to go the whole preservation hog, it's actually quite a neat process: you vacuum loose dirt, wipe off the rest with a lint-free cloth and distilled water, and place in a zippered polyethylene bag. Then you place envelopes of silica gel in the bag, and little bags with their corners torn open of a substance called oxygen scavenger. Then you place a second bag over the first and seal it and put away.

For the film, as I said earlier the issues are fairly thorny. You have to identify the type (if exploding or non-exploding, for starters) and each type requires different interventions. It's likely that yours would be of the type that ideally goes in an archival box (and that in turn inside two polyethylene zippered bags) and from there in the freezer. But if you don't have a special freezer to spare, think cool and dark place.

Grunt said...

Crap. So I suppose keeping it under my suspended baby grand piano is not recommended then? I guess I'll have to move things around tomorrow.