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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Telling stories without paper: human voices and created objects

Without realizing it earlier, this semester I am in two courses that I have been extremely excited to take, and that both deal with forms of historical evidence that are neither paper nor text. The Document is the historian's love, her bread and butter, that which is often the basis of entire projects, which turn into the articles, tomes, textbooks, and popular history books that everyone else reads. In public history classes, though, it is a simple truth that the regular person goes to museums not to read lots of label text and long passages that, though their stories may be astonishing, do involve more words. No, they most often go to see the things that make history come to life for them. Artifacts, small and large, can often be so powerful, say so much with no words. And this is where my classes are taking me. The emphasis in Material Culture is obvious: the objects, created or altered somehow by man, that offer insight into customs, social patterns, lifestyles, foodways, and larger culture of the people of our past.

So too do I find this in Oral History, the other aforementioned class, where our discussions, readings, and projects revolve around the spoken word, in a historical context, and using a proper methodology that puts it far beyond casual conversation. In conducting oral histories, we are formally and methodically documenting the past, in ways that effect immensely both the narrator (the subject) and the interviewer (me).

I find both of these mediums so powerful. I conducted two oral histories earlier this year, after a one-class-period crash course in one of my other classes, and while they were on two very different topics, I discovered the many nuances that oral historians have been raving about since the 1960s; one of the most significant to me was the unexpected paths the interview can take, and also the candidness of my narrators. By asking very simple questions and then shutting my damn mouth, it was astonishing what stories they would tell me, without my ever having to ask them something provocative or controversial. Not that the primary goal is provocative information, not at all. But, for example, I was interviewing a couple in the late forties who have a young daughter they adopted from Guatemala, and there were a lot of delicate and sensitive subjects I wanted to broach with them, like whether or not they would someday tell her about her half-siblings that they knew she had back in Guatemala, or whether they would help her in finding her biological roots, if she ever wanted to know more about them. These were things I didn't think I would have the guts to ask. But I never needed to: the family was so welcoming and so willing to explore their complicated emotions on those subjects, via other more basic questions I had asked within the larger subject of their family and their relationship to Guatemala right now. I know this won't always be the case, and this is a topic I am continuing to work with, but it was an extraordinary first dive into the process, and into the revelations of what oral histories are, and what they do for larger historical projects you are producing.

And material culture, whose roots can be found across disciplines--archeology, folklore, sociology, history--has been enchanting academics in these fields for far longer than I have been alive to ponder its worth. I am not a natural at gleaning information and historical clues from innate objects the way I have been able to do with documents, even though, at their core, neither one is more or less equipped than the other to tell a story about the person who created it. Documents are not purveyors of truth any more than a three-dimensional object that lacks a description or context of any kind. Just because something has words on it, a handwritten letter, say, does not mean we can understand it any better upon finding it than we would a shard of porcelain. My goal this semester is to begin to better navigate and interpret our material past, in more nuanced ways than I have ever known or cared to explore.

Museum staffs, and so, museum exhibits, have as their goal the interpretation of the past, in a way that makes people look at their own lives and relate the past to them, to where they live, to those around them. This can be done very well with historical documents, presented in a cohesive manner, that tell a wonderful story. But, as soon as you add the human voice, and the objects created by men and women in that same story, you have brought the exhibit to life. You have succeeded in a more successful, effective way, in relating the story to your audience, and they will leave remembering it more clearly, and hopefully in a way that connects them to the past, to its utter humanity and enormity.

Henry Glassie, in his book Material Culture, describes our relationship to things in our everyday life, and inspires us to think about them in more significant ways, as pieces that connect us to the larger humanity of the world. After all, if it as not us personally, someone created every single thing in our lives. That is a powerful thought. I leave you with the passion of his words, so inspiring and clearly telling, as he has spent his life studying the Things of People.

Among the new things, the most important, I believe, is the collection: the assembly of gifts, souvenirs, and commodities into a home--the domestic environment in contradistinction to the house. The collection represents a victory over disorder in industrial times, when the flood of goods threatens to sweep us to madness in a rising tide of irrelevant trash, just as the house of stone represented a victory over disorder in the days when people lived close to nature, when the lean wolves came down from the heath and the night winds wailed. But we should not be confused. Today, while we create things out of things made by other people, all across the globe, people in no way less real or alive are going up into the woods and down to the riverside. They are chopping out chunks of nature and fashioning artifacts that display their spirit and serve the serious needs of their neighbors.

The things we carry

Stuffed animals, out-grown shoes, hand-me-down mugs; aged television sets, dog-eared romance novels, and garish gold picture frames...

Secondhand stores can be a treasure trove or a purgatory between home and landfill, and quite often, it is both simultaneously. My mother is renowned for her ability to walk into a Goodwill and find the two designer items amongst the overwhelming array of clothing, which has been sorted by color into a rainbow of pinks, greens, blacks, creams. She finds great things far more often than I do. The secondhand hunt can sometimes seem like more work than its worth: picking through sweaters hoping to find a nice material in a size that may or may not fit, all the while hoping you'll be able to get the previous owners' smell out of it in the wash.

And that doesn't even include the millions of items, like the teddy bears and picture frames, that get passed over entirely (and usually for good reason; do we really need a section for hand-me-down underwear? Is anyone buying those?).

But the things we buy, keep, donate, throw away, and create tell one of the most interesting stories that exists. What do we think we need, and what makes us happy? What transcends our childhood, and what gets tossed out? What did they use one hundred years ago instead of a replacement product today, and what created the need for a different device? And when something is so foreign that we can't tell its use by looking at it, we get to use our best judgment to give it a context, a story, and a purpose; and we get to marvel in the fact that it has survived centuries past the expiration of its usefulness, which is a stunning fact in itself, the way we dispose of things in modern society.

I was supposed to be taking a class on material culture this fall as part of my graduate studies; I am still very excited to dig into this rich realm of human history, I'll just be doing it in the spring semester instead. Material things offer an entirely different form of historical evidence from documents like letters, diaries, and speeches, and give us perhaps a more nuanced glance into an era and a society than oral histories, which filter through the strange realms of memory, time, and maturation. Each person has a limited amount of money, and what they spend it on shapes the lives each person leads. Do they buy a car or a bicycle, a house in the city or the country, a collection of books or a collection of baseball cards? All are noble pursuits, neither better than the other at the surface, but something tips the scales towards one or the other for each individual. How amazing that we leave behind this trail of purchases and, over our lifetimes, determine what stays with us for decades and what was really never worth the money (and what falls somewhere in between).

As all this was in my head, I heard a story on The World recently that brought material culture history and the secondhand industry a bit closer together; after all, considering their essentially working with the same items, they are strangely separate entities. Most people will never know (or care to know) the stories behind the things they buy in secondhand stores, even if they always know there has been at least one previous owner and life before them.

Oxfam, a charity organization in the United Kingdom, raises money through stores across the country much like Goodwill or Salvation Army in the U.S. One of their stores recently took a brilliant step towards shrinking the disconnect between secondhand goods and the stories they silently carry through the world. Emma Cooney, who runs an Oxfam in Manchester, teamed up with Chris Speed, a digital artist, to begin recording brief stories told by the owners as they come in to donate their now-unwanted things. In thirty seconds, a woman can share the story of her old handbag, which she purchased on a cold Sunday morning in the middle of winter, in a "small, dark shop" owned by a women who gave the woman a hot cup of cocoa. As she donates the bag, she says she's always reminded of hot chocolate when she used the purse.

People who come into the shop to browse the items can listen to the stories on their cell phones by scanning a bar code, or they can broadcast it over the store's intercom so everyone else can listen as well.

In the interview, Chris Speed said, "It was a very public story as though suddenly someone touched an object and a whole store was woken up by this tale about where these objects had come from. What was amazing was that people wanted the damn objects. You could see them holding almost something as though it was in someone’s living room, and it changed the entire atmosphere of the shop. Everyone was fascinated, and they really didn’t want to let go of the stories, which meant they bought them. So as fast as we could get stories in, they were going out of the store like hotcakes."

Which meant that the items became more valuable to people upon hearing the little stories behind them, the tales--big or little--about their previous lives and owners. A simple, remarkable idea. In the immediate, it is a great way to market used goods and turn a bit of profit for their charity. And in the long-term, those items continue to collect new stories, this time never losing some of their earlier ones. It's a little like that dollar bill tracking thing, where people can find their bill online and see where it's "checked in" around the world. But on a smaller, more intimate scale, and with items that people cherish and build more meaningful relationships with--for however brief a time--before they move on.

(Several of the recorded stories are in sound-clip form at the story's main page.)