Sunday, September 27, 2009

Collecting as a Means of Survival

I've recently been mulling over the issue of collections and collecting in our society. In part this is brought on by class discussions, including the role collections play within the material realm of the museum as well as that of the digital archive. In this entry I will attempt to sort out the jumble of thoughts that have been spinning round my head this week- thoughts that fly into my brain even when I least expect them to, like in the midst of watching a Polish documentary on a Saturday afternoon.

Last weekend I visited the London Museum of Archaeology and came across an interesting display. A collection of animal skulls sat within a glass case and above it was mounted an explanation of the artifacts as well as an interesting comment about collections as a whole. It explained that humans began collecting in earliest times as a means of survival. A store of food was a safety net in case the hunters and gatherers weren't so successful in ticking items off their grocery list that week.

It gave me something to think about, this idea of collecting as a means of survival. As I left the museum, I wondered if we were the same today. In this information age we are amassing a digital collection so vast and so public that it is nearly impossible to contain and quantify it. It is also, as we have discussed in our Digital History class, in danger of disappearing altogether. Are we in danger of binging on our ability to collect? Are we simply turning into hoarders who collect just because we can, and consume what we want while allowing the rest of our collection to decay into garbage? You'd like to think that the earliest humans ate everything they saved.

There's a psychological study here somewhere, and I'm sure someone has looked into the motivations behind our individual and collective need to possess and store. I do not pretend to be an expert here; what I am interested in exploring is how we as public historians can make sense of this pressing issue of the digital archive by perhaps understanding something about the role of collections to the human experience.

One important factor, I think, is the feeling of possession. To be able to own an object and say that it represents you or someone you love is an empowering experience. In the documentary Katyn the young soldier begs that an officer's personal effects be returned to his bereaved wife because to her they were treasured "relics." Her husband, or part of him at least, is immortalized through the meaning she gives to those pieces of his life that have remained. Similarly, in the film Amelie, the Parisian Nino collects abandoned pictures from photo booths, piecing them together in a large book and making meaning out of objects that others see as garbage. But as we discussed in our class last week, one person's refuse is another's treasure- or relic, or art project.

Ownership is comfort and empowerment, but at what point does the scale tip in the other direction and the possessor discovers that he or she has become the possessed? Collections give us meaning and identity but only so long as we remain in control. In A.S. Byatt's Possession (aptly titled for this blog entry) the academic Mortimer Cropper is so determined to obtain the material artifacts of a poet's life that he sacrifices his own professional integrity in his quest to do so. It is the act of collecting- the chase- that takes precedence over the value of the objects themselves. This, I think, is the danger we are facing in the digital age.

Is the internet turning into a tool for society's collective hunger to know more, have more at our fingertips? I think the London Museum of Archaeology's statement can still be applied here. There is a feeling of safety in the internet; that anything you need to know is there, just in case. It's the modern version of food storing to last the winter. The difference is that it is changing so quickly and accumulating so much information that we are struggling to keep up with it.

I am not suggesting here that the web is an evil swelling mass that is dwarfing our little spider of humanity- a spider overwhelmed at the structure it created. What I think is that meaning is necessary. The internet is a fantastic resource for the sharing of information, ideas, and culture across a global network. But it has become such a large collection that it is up to historians, archivists and librarians to collectively make meaning out of. Otherwise our collective histories are amassed and thrown out like last season's rotten harvest. We have to choose what to collect on the basis of what will be consumed; who will use this information and how it will be stored. As I mentioned earlier, it is not easy to decide what is trash and what is treasure, but it is necessary if we are going to be able to preserve everything. Let's possess the information rather than have it possess us, and be aware that our innate need to collect is both problematic as well as empowering in our relationship with the past.

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