Working on my third article, about the museum gaze and museum objects, last week I came across three very different participatory projects that all resonated with me. In different ways, they inspired considerations of objects outside the museum, of attributing museal value to your own things and of notions of the everyday vs the extraordinary.
#Deldit2014 is an Instagram based call for submissions of photos of how we live in 2014. The initiative comes from ‘Den Gamle By’, an open-air museum of urban history and culture, whose mid-19th century township was recently supplemented by a section of city life in 1974. Now, in preparation for a future exhibition of 2014, the curators ask the public to share photos of their homes under a common hashtag.
Screenshot from Instagram, submission for #deldit2014
Participation in this project simply requires taking a snapshot of your home, the contents of your fridge or other snippets of everyday life. It thereby simultaneously satisfies the widespread urge to share your life on social media, and offers the tantalising prospect of contributing to future heritage, although the museum makes it clear that only select photos will enter their collection. But what makes the project most interesting for me is how adding hashtags or other descriptions inspires reflection not so much on the specific contents of my home, but of how they are typical of the times. What transpires is that most signifiers of personal taste and choices are actually ‘so 2014′: buying organic milk and veg, streaming TV series rather than watching TV, replacing CDs with Spotify and records (and referring to them as ‘vinyl’ rather than records or LP’s), having white painted floorboards; this, I realise, will seem like a timestamp when looking back sometime in the future. But of course the task of identifying and collecting the present is a great challenge, also for curators who cannot rely on the comfortable clarity of future hindsight, and are also themselves caught up in the Zeitgeist as well as in the unspoken codes of their own social taste tribes. Enlisting the public is therefore a brilliant strategy, as it simultaneously aids the curators and potentially broadens their perspective; promotes the museum in a cool, fun and approachable way via participants’ social media networks (marketing gold); and inspires reflection on current cultural heritage.
At Museum of Copenhagen, the exhibition ‘Søren Kierkegaard: objects of love, works of love’ comprises the philosopher’s personal possessions and quotes from his writings on the subject of love with contributions of objects and their related ‘love stories’ from the public. This juxtaposition of refined prose with mundane objects worked a treat, and the simple yet rather striking execution of the physical exhibition renders it well worth a visit. The exhibition also has a virtual counterpart, from which the excerpts from Kierkegaard’s writings have strangely and sadly been omitted, but where some of the objects and the stories behind them can be found. (And although not all items from the exhibition can be found online, at least here all digital content is fully functioning, which unfortunately was not the case onsite. This remains a curse on digital mediation in museums, regardless of the platform, and equally frustrating each time.)
Private snapshot from the Kierkegaard exhibition. The simple exhibition design consisted of a circle of double-sided exhibition cases, showing Kierkegaard’s quotes and objects in the inside circle, and items from the public related to the same themes on the outside.
Frankly, I haven’t read any Kierkegaard (this exhibition served as yet another reminder that I really ought to change that). Still, contemplating the philosophical concepts and many forms of love – loving friendship, romantic love, love of the self or love of a parent, for example – has such a universal appeal that prior knowledge of the literary sort was not a prerequisite. As the museum’s director, Jette Sandahl says, ‘[i]t’s a subject we are all experts on’, and, one might add, a subject that nevertheless can leave us all confused and unsure, as no level of expertise can safeguard us from fumbling and failing. This uncertainty, I gather, is at the heart of Kierkegaard’s writings on love. And while the historical artefacts may have the solidity of traditional museum objects, grounded in verifiable facts and documentable data regarding a person of indisputable cultural significance, it is the ambiguity of the subject matter that makes the exhibition interesting and relevant.
For me, Kierkegaard’s possessions had less of an aura than his words. The object that struck me the most, or stuck with me the most, was therefore not one of his, but one that was most banal. A simple handwritten note, of the ‘Will you be my boyfriend? Yes/No’-type. Of course, it’s instantly recognisable, we’ve all been there, as senders or recipients or both. It invokes sweet memories of a tender and somewhat silly age, but then again, little more than that: it is not a tale of everlasting passion. So what amazes me is that ‘Thomas’, who donated the object, had kept this scrap of paper for all these years, especially as the proposed ‘relationship’ came to nought. It is touching that it survived to become a museum object, with the essential capacity to speak simultaneously of the specific and the universal. Thomas’ anecdote of how the note was passed to him gives this item a specific provenance, but it also allows us to remember our own similar stories and reflect on scales of emotion, on coming of age, on the myriad of possible paths that makes up a life. The simple object, when cast in the right light, thus becomes an object for reflection.
Again, of course, I am reminded of Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. Still not impressed by the novel nor convinced by his Modest Manifesto for Museums, I have to concede that personal objects and stories of individuals can sometimes be very well, if not necessarily, as Pamuk would have it, ‘much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity’ (ibid.).
Such an object might also have found its way to The Museum of Important Shit. A spin-off project from the film 20000 days on Earth, the website introduces the museum thus:
This virtual Museum catalogues the things that remind us of those transformative moments that make us who we are, and unlocks the stories connected to them.
This whole thing started with an old piece of chewing gum. Seriously.
We were shooting the film and Nick told us this spine-tingling story. Nina Simone had been a nightmare backstage at one of her final gigs. But when she walked on and sat down, she took the gum from her mouth and stuck it on the piano, and… transformed. It was one of those rare moments. Nick felt the gears of his heart change. We’ve all had experiences like this.
A few weeks later, we’re shooting another scene. Nick is asking bandmate Warren Ellis if he remembers that Nina Simone gig. Warren interrupts: “I have that gum” he says. And he really does. A pathetic looking dirty piece of gum, wrapped in a towel.
As Nick says in the film, “It’s shit, but it’s important shit. And that’s what this Museum is all about. We might not all have the masticated detritus of a jazz legend tucked away, but we all accumulate objects that have little financial value, but they hold the stories of the things that make us who we are. The Museum will unlock these transformative moments that define our very being. We urge you to share them with us, with the Museum, with the world. (Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, London, September 2014 http://www.20000daysonearth.com/museum/)
For some reason, this project stirred me. I wanted to make a contribution of my own, and was sad to realise that I did not have a secret stash of stuff to share (or at least the bits and pieces that I do have I decided were too private to make public, although sometimes the most public of spaces, such as the World Wide Web, can induce a comfortable sense of complete anonymity.) The rock stardust (‘Nick’ in the story being singer Nick Cave) obviously gives the project a certain allure, as well as amplifying the impact and reach. But the notion of these pivotal moments in life, and how we might hold on to them by way of simple objects, also just rings true. Although I may have discarded my own knick-knack, I can still relate to the urge to keep and treasure such relics, as material manifestations of a life lived, of joys and dreams and memorable experiences. It is, after all, a common condition, as argued by Sherry Turkle, who introduces the concept ‘evocative objects‘:
We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with. (2007:5)
Our love affair with evocative objects, however, has a touch of the illicit, as if sentimentality was an unseemly indulgence. One could argue that perhaps memorabilia is better kept in our hearts and our attics, that ‘important shit’ should not be musealised. Even though the cultural value of museum objects does not correlate to market price, the aura of precious odds and ends might fade in the public glare. Important shit may be too important to be subjected to the mortifying process of musealisation (if one is to trust the likes of Adorno and Huyssen). It could also be argued that personal debris is not worth the attention of museums. That while an object may speak volumes to the original keeper, its significance being a personal matter, it may not have much to say to a public audience, as museum objects are expected to do. Then again, perhaps this commonplace and very human attachment to bits of worthless junk and days gone by rightly calls for a communal celebration. In which case, however, it is the collective story, and not the individual objects, that warrants museum attention.
Now of course, the ‘Museum of important shit’ is a museum only be name. It makes little sense to assess the project or the submissions according to any museum standards. Still, it’s an evocative concept, one that triggers many thoughts about the correlation between museums, objects and subjects. About the conditioning of objects to the museum context and to museum narrative. About epistemological twists and turns. And about the difference between seeing museum objects as things that tell as story, and regarding them as potential things to think with.
And then, of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Adorno, T. (1967)1981, ‘Valery Proust Museum’, in Prisms, MIT Press, Cambridge
Huyssen, A. (1995), ‘Escape from Amnesia’, Twilight Memories: Marking time in a culture of amnesia, Routledge, New York & London
Turkle, S. (2007), ‘Introduction: The things that matter’ in Evocative Objects, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press