A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of Radiolab called “Things,” which explored people’s relationships with objects, and how things can be signifiers of something else: a place, a person, a memory, a feeling; the past, the present, the future; beauty, pain, struggle, triumph. As we here at the Connecticut Historical Society are in the business of telling the stories of history through objects, I found this episode quite relevant to my interests. It got me thinking about the nature of collecting and how that relates to my career and life.
Not everyone who works in the cultural heritage or museum fields is a collector. I didn’t really think of myself as a collector until I heard this episode. I’ve moved around a lot as an adult, I’ve never made lots of money, and I’ve always lived in smallish apartments–these things do not really lend themselves to collecting much of anything. I won’t inherit any family collections, either.
And yet. “Things” included an interview with the wife of one of the hosts, who just does not feel that things contain any significance. These two, the host and his wife, have been having this argument for the past 40 years: he is confronted with Abraham Lincoln’s signature and speaks reverently and poetically about the connection he now feels to the president; she is presented with a fragment of the canvas from the Wright brothers’ first airplane and sees… just a scrap of fabric. I found myself muttering out loud in my kitchen about why she was wrong.
I firmly, passionately, believe that things have meaning. My entire education and career have kind of hinged on that belief (and the hope that others share that belief). The stuff that we create and produce and retain is important. It contains information and stories about what happened where and with and to whom; it gives us an accurate timeline of events and ideas; it is beautiful; it is pedestrian; it is important.
The importance doesn’t need to be grand, either. It can be personal, too, and less about the thing itself than the circumstances under which it was acquired. I don’t collect anything that would be valuable to anyone, but it’s not true that I don’t collect. When I was six or seven, I had a nature box that contained various treasures that I’d collected on my adventures: a snakeskin, eggs, feathers, pretty stones. I kept them in a cigar box, which I took to school for show and tell at least once. That box and its contents are long gone, but lately my special gentleman friend and I have begun collecting similar treasures again. They live in a little wooden box that I got at a thrift store, and they remind us of the places we’ve been and the things we’ve done. They’ll never be on display in a museum and they probably won’t produce flowery speech from anyone who gazes upon them, but man, they are important.