A Savior of History?

Recently on the “Hoarders” program (the Learning Channel), one man with an overflowing stash called himself a “savior of history.” His description made me stop and think about the commitment of collecting.

Exhibit, National Museum of the American Indian

Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, the American Pickers from Antique Archeology (the History Channel), regularly encounter Folks Who Just Can’t Let Go of Stuff. Maybe the Pickers’ determination to find treasures in the most daunting of places is far more normal than the determination of owners they meet to pack every nook and cranny.

Just how much psychic distance separates those who compulsively hoard everything from coffee can lids to collectibles amidst dirt and disorganization, from professionals who collect for profit or as a public trust? Taking care of objects is inherent to the latter community.

Curators and conservators study and protect objects; interpreters and re-enactors make and demonstrate their use. Collectors seek what they desire, while educators teach about objects’ meanings. All persist in the hope of preserving history or at least some of its fragments. Within families, sharing of memorabilia these days can represent a virtual collecting process through online photo galleries and social media.

Yet there may be a connecting link between those souls who can’t help surrounding themselves with things to extreme levels (sometimes up to the ceiling!), and those who gather with greater–and more socially acceptable–purpose. It may be the same very human urge to anchor our notions of reality in material things for the memories they contain and the value we attach to them.

Take away those memories and values – what we may call provenance – and an object is open to interpretation as junk or treasure.  But when we least expect it, history really can be saved.  Here’s a pending example. An alert Yale curator may have found an unknown painting by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) in museum storage, and he has spent five years documenting his evidence: http://bit.ly/he6Ksw.

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