We all love things, don’t we? Things in the literal, corporeal, piled-in-a-heap sense: plates, shoes, books, chairs, necklaces, models. But what makes us love them? How deeply do we really love them?
Someone posed the questions, What would you take if you had to pack in a hurry to leave home forever? What will your kids remember you by?
Those are hard to unpack: how will other people remember us? Often, we have no idea what we mean to other people, even the ones closest to us. It’s easier for me to know what I would take or keep to remember someone else by– a single sleeve link; a wooden train engine; a stainless steel spoon; a necklace of handmade beads. None of those things reflects what is truly meaningful to me about them, that is, without my knowledge, these aren’t particularly interesting or aesthetic objects. What makes them special is the story I attach to them.
That is, of course, the key to interpreting objects in a social history context: the story is what makes the object more interesting, more important, more compelling. It’s the difference between a provenanced and an unprovenanced object, between a roundabout (or corner) chair in context, and one out of context.
This is not to say that beautiful things are without value removed from context, but what makes that Goddard chair more compelling is knowing who made it, who it was made for, and when– knowing that it was part of a set of furniture ordered to furnish a house for Providence newlyweds, made in Newport by one of the hottest makers of the time. It’s the people who make the object more interesting, who make it worth having, seeing, holding on to– whether it’s a $6 million chair or a $25 mug, memories and stories make things compelling beyond our associations with them.
Part of a museum curator’s job is understanding those stories, placing objects in context, and connecting them back to their stories, to their makers, users, owners, and keepers. We may buy things because they’re beautiful or useful, but often we keep them because of their meaning– which is, more often than not, about people. Unprovenanced objects have less meaning; an object sold outside, or without, its context will not fetch as much. Value resides in people, not in things.
I think of this not only because a portion of my work is to recreate or reestablish the human contexts and connections for things, but because there is a human instinct to grab onto something tangible (like an object), rather than something ethereal (like a memory), even though what will sustain us in the end is not things, but other people, and our memories of them.