The Life and Times of Things

I am absolutely fascinated by the relationship people have with things. I am fascinated by the meaning and value humans add to otherwise meaningless objects. I've written about it before: Why do we keep what we do, discard what we decide we do not want? How do we use things to celebrate and make meaning in holidays? And long after we are gone, what patterns do our consumptive and domestic habits leave behind about our lifestyles and value systems?

This is probably part of the reason I am drawn to working in museums with objects that have been selected to be kept, preserved, valued as historical in some way, and chosen to represent people, moments, and eras past, present, future.

That's also why I wish I had thought of this first.

The concept, the hypothesis, and the execution is brilliant. Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker were apparently pondering the regular, conventional assumption, that what gives an object value is somehow determined by laws of utility, supply and demand, or "qualities intrinsic to the object -- e.g., craftsmanship or design." No, there are more powerful, less explicable forces at work behind the irrational behavior of humans (I myself just finished reading Predictably Irrationaland its author Dan Ariely would agree here) and why and what we value. So they created the Significant Objects project, and drafted a hypothesis: "that regardless of of the thing's aesthetic or utilitarian properties, an object's value can be increased by way of the narrative attached to it."

They sough to find more evidence of this link between ordinary objects and extraordinary meaning.

Glenn and Walker thrift-store shopped for one hundred items, spending a total of $128.74 Then they asked one hundred authors (most pretty unknown names) to write a story about an object, so they would end up with one hundred objects and one hundred stories to match. Then, they listed them for sale on eBay, with the story in the item description (and a disclaimer that this was, in fact, a fictitious story).

When all the items were sold, the grand total of what people forked over for otherwise meaningless objects: $3,612.51. For tchotchkes.

They compiled their whole project and process in a beautiful little book that I purchased immediately after hearing Rob Walker talk about their project on Marketplace. They refer to this as a literary and economic experiment. After conducting three series of the experiments, three hundred items given invented meaning and then sold to interested parties online, they compiled the best 100 stories and their conclusions and thoughts into this book. It's part short story fiction, part economic enigma, part "in-your-face, logical economic thinking."

The experimenters, shall we call them, came up with these categories of significance, to try and determine if these kinds of factors play a part in determining what people might value, and how much they will value it (in an actual monetary amount). The short answer is, it's complicated. The shorter answer is, No; these distinctions don't matter overtly. Neither did the author who had penned the tale.

Neither, really, did the object type, which had been split into these categories: Novelty Item, House & Table, Figurine, Decoration, Kitchenware, Toy, Kitsch, Tool, Promotional Item.

It is befuddling, mysterious, and glorious to browse through the items in this series, examine the item, read the story that accompanies it, and marvel at much, or how little, it went for in the end, on the internet auction block. Sometimes a fantastical, or intriguing tale would only garner $20 from a buyer; other times, stories I thought were a bit throw-away (compared to some) brought in a cool $100 or more. Each item was, by their own rules, purchased for less than $4 originally.

What's also interesting is how now, precisely by being featured in a project like this, objects that had no meaning at all, tchotchkes and trash at best, again have a value and shelf-life, because you are unlikely to ever spot a second of these random, old, forgotten things elsewhere in the world. Pairs, brothers, additional copies produced long ago are now likely to have been long trashed, destroyed, abandoned, forgotten.

It speaks highly of the project creators, Walker and Glenn, that these pieces were so well-chosen and curated to begin with. They limited themselves, for example, from including "mid-century-through-1980s pop culture ephemera," and consciously did not include any furniture, clothing, books, or other things that were deemed to obviously "object-like."

What an entirely enigmatic project. I am so jealous to have not thought of this experiment first.

I spent a whole semester reading and discussing and researching topics in material culture, learning about British tea culture, eighteenth century American clothing culture, white and black spaces on the plantation homestead, hand embroidered crafts made by women living in refugee camps, Puerto Ricans' meaning in their homes and spaces on abandoned plots in New York City, and meaning in punk rock clothing and attitude, among other things. I spent a semester thinking about and researching, asking questions about meaning in quilts, for my own final project. We talked of tchotchkes and trinkets and souvenirs from trips far and near. I should have been thinking more deeply about the stories, the ones we create, the ones we forget, the ones that are passed down to us, the ones we make from our own life experiences.

Valueless objects take up lots of space in our lives, even when we consciously resist such a phenomenon. We can be upset that this occurs, and try our best to live simply. I agree. But I also think it is just a source of too much intrigue and love, sadness and grief, too much human drama for us to ignore those little trinkets that survive and speak to moments passed. That is what we do in museums all the time, after all, use objects to represent was once was, what stories have come before us, what things happened here. Who lived, and what they owned while they habited this earth.

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