One of my passions when I travel is to seek out small house museums, and personal collections. The examination of someone’s personal ephemera can provide a glimpse into their own passions and fascinations, or intimate their most cherished memories. In “Modest Manifesto for Museums,” Orhan Pamuk contends that museums, instead of advancing the narratives of nations, should move to reconstruct the world of individual human beings: “Large national museums present the history of the nation – history, in a word – as being far more important than the histories of individuals. This is unfortunate because everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane, and much more joyful. “The stories of individuals are much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity.”
Through the act of collecting and photographing, the objects in this series transcend their original purpose for the owner, rising to the status of artifact. The object becomes more than a personal touchstone, it acts as a visual symbol, a synthesis, of a particular person or an event. My criteria in choosing the artifacts are largely subjective, based on whether the item appeals to me either viscerally or intellectually, or sometimes it invoked a vivid memory. They are tracked down, collected and organized according to my interests, resulting in a personal cultural history. Pamuk quotes the 16th century Istanbul painter, Veli Can, to suggest a link between beauty and memory – “ we often find objects beautiful because of a kind of resemblance to something we are already familiar with.”
I find that these often homely items are beautiful in their own right as sculptural objects. They additionally take on symbolic resonance with the revelation of their owner, maker, or backstory. Some become items of inspiration when viewed within the context of the owner’s life. For example, Shimmy Baum’s hand-rigged eyeglasses, which he invented in order to continue his Talmudic studies after he began to lose his sight to macular degeneration, or the ephemera carefully collected and cataloged by Henry Darger that was later incorporated into his artworks. Other artifacts are visible fallout from periods of emotional strife, again, personal and collective. For example, the pocket knife, mace, and Molotov cocktail that were used as evidence against the Chicago Seven, whose provenance was hotly disputed during the trial; and the bullet casing that belonged to Hunter Thompson, a known gun-fetishist who died from a self-inflicted gunshot.
Lastly from Pamuk, “The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, nation or company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.”