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.