Friday, December 18, 2009

The Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting and Other Stories

The Structural Problems of Collecting

Halfway along the living room wall in my parents' house there is a small hairline crack in the plaster. Whenever I’m there I find myself glancing at it, wondering if it has got any longer, or wider, and whether I should worry. I think I know the reason behind it though which is down to the contents of the room directly overhead. Hovering above, supported by old and slightly sagging timber joists, are piles and piles of car magazines. There are thousands of them, sixty odd years worth of Motor Sport, Autocar and Motoring News alongside bulletins of old car clubs, posters, models and other ephemera.

Looking at these teetering columns of trivia slowly collapsing into each other recently I started to wonder more generally about the urge to collect. It’s easy to laugh at all those collections of Royal Family mugs and Beatrix Potter plates or at trainspotters huddled on sad station platforms, but there is a collector in all of us. When I was a teenager I was a voracious reader of the music press. Some time after I left home my mother threw out my collection of Melody Makers, a cultural crime I considered at the time to be on a par with the activities in Farenheit 451. I'm not sure I would ever have read them again, but the knowledge that they were there was somehow important.

No 52, The Strand

I regularly walk past a house where th
e living room – which looks directly out onto the pavement – is full to bursting with ornaments and knick-knacks. China dogs, stuffed Garfields, Franklin Mint sculptures, Sylvanian Family animals and Lilliput Lane cottages jostle for space on every surface. Mostly it is animals though; big, small, standing up, lying down, wearing waistcoats, playing cards, going fishing. The compulsion to look in the window is overwhelming even though your eyes inevitably meet those of the house’s owner, splayed out on the sofa, staring out at the people staring in. My seven-year old daughter loves it. I’m mildly terrified. The over-abundance, more than the kitsch taste, disturbs me. It seems to represent some voracious and all-consuming appetite sublimated into fur and glazed china.

He Scoured The Earth For Light

When Charles B. Sero, a third-generation Detroiter, was six years old, he happened upon an old electric-light bulb, thought it a very interesting object, and laid it away among his prized possessions. Now sixty, Sero has the world's largest collection of old and odd bulbs, many of which are historically or scientifically invaluable.

One reason this singular project—it is no longer a hobby, he says, but 'my life'—has succeeded is that Sero has built up an army of volunteer deputy collectors all over the world. The war greatly accelerated this international search, bringing in such items as bulbs that helped fly the Enola Gay on her atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a dial light from Himmler's personal radio, and bulbs that lighted the German and Japanese surrender signatures on the Victory Train that toured the United States.

The Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting

The passage above was taken from an article in the New York times, undated, and discovered here. A lot of people collect lightbulbs, it seems, including one Hugh Hicks, a dentist from Baltimore. Hicks collected some 60,000 bulbs which he displayed in the basement of his dental practice. He called his collection The Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting. It included "the bulb that illuminated the table on which the Japanese signed the surrender document ending World War II as well as a floodlight for an Elvis Presley film". This is an amazing idea. Imagine a house where every room was lit by a famous bulb. It would be like looking at distant stars, trying to trace the source of the light.

Nights At The Museum

In his essay Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin described the act of collecting as one that gives life to objects, creating a frame for them to exist. "The acquisition of an old book", he wrote, "is its rebirth". Outside the collection objects have no meaning or, perhaps, only their everyday, quotidian meaning. We need the collection, Benjamin suggests, in order to see objects outside the blur of habit in which we use them. This is the justification of the collector, someone who breathes life into the things he or she collects.

This is interesting partly because it runs counter to a popular conception of museums and collecting. In children's films museums are filled with collections of objects that frequently come to life, escaping the vitrine and the display cabinet. The museum - or the collection - is a place of dead things. Sometimes literally, of course, but also symbolically too. In Toy Story 2 the fate threatening the toy cowboy hero Woody is to end up in the hands of a collector, displayed in a museum. Woody's toy friends conspire to rescue him from this fate worse than - or possibly the same as - death. Museums exchange use value for cultural value. To be in a collection is to cease to be useful.

The World's Biggest Collection of One Man's Navel Fluff

Graham Paddock collects his own navel fluff. It's an ongoing project. Not only that but he collects beard trimmings, false names and ski passes. He describes the key aspects of any collection as: uniqueness, rarity, completeness of collection and condition. In relation to this last category Paddock states that his "navel fluff is in mint condition. When harvested, I remove any body hai
r from the fluff then store it immediately in a jar, where it remains uncontaminated".

Toys Aren't Us

Toy museums represent a particularly acute example of the transformative nature of collecting because they negate the original function of the object entirely. To be valuable to collectors toys need to be in their original packaging, preferably unused. This is markedly different to many of the objects found in museums where the traces of use provide important authentication. Toys are most valuable when they have never been used as toys. In the children's story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the evil Baron Bomburst collects toys in a land where children themselves are banned. Bomburst is the collector as anti-hero, turning objects of innocent pleasure into objects of contemplation.

There's More To Life Than Books You Know...

According to popular wisdom too much contemplation is a bad thing. It can only lead to anxiety, or neurosis. It's anti-social. The idea that museums are full of 'dead' objects mirrors a prejudice regarding a split between the healthy life of the body and the dark, lonely life of the mind. People who collect things are often considered sad, somehow lacking in life. To collect is to put too much faith in inanimate objects. Collectors lead a shadowy - even sinister - existence in our society, observing rather than participating. Serial killers, trainspotters and geeks collect. But, as I say, we are all collectors; of letters, memorabilia, music, relationships, knowledge.

...But Not Much More

Generally people like to call a spade a spade. Put it alongside a number of other spades though and more complex shades of meaning become apparent. To collect things is also to recognise that objects have meanings which may be opaque or difficult to decipher. Collecting is a way of studying things. Objects are neither alive nor dead. They are never merely useful in some reductive, functionalist manner. And meaning is never inherent, always latent. Collecting recognises value when previously there was assumed to be none. It can lend significance to the smallest thing.


Will said...

Great post. Another datum: in the American sit-com 30 Rock, thrusting corporate executive, alpha male and Master of the Universe Jack Donaghy is in the running to become president of General Electric. Before he's vetted, he hires a private detective to find any skeletons in his closet. The detective discovers his biggest secret: his has amassed an enormous collection of novelty cookie jars under the name "Victor Nightingale". The PI tells him he has to destroy the collection if he wants to head GE - if it gets out, it will destroy his chances. Rudy Giuliani had to destroy his doll collection before he ran for mayor, the PI says. Men with collections don't head corporations - they wear bowties and are called Victor Nightingale.

progressive reactionary said...

staring at the crack in the wall... reminds me of Tom McCarthy's 'Remainder'....

Charles Holland said...

thanks will, post obviously inspired by the icon review book! Victor Nightingale is the perfect name for a collector.

pr, sorry haven't read that one...i was thinking a lot about nicholson baker when i wrote it - particularly tne mexzzanine.

Tim Maly said...

There's no visible text in this post? I am missing something I think.

Charles Holland said...

Tim, I can't see a problem with the post. Hope you can view it if you try again.