(Im)memorabilia: Ephemerality, Resonance and the Collector’s Item
Ephemera are not collectibles by default. Not every object becomes prized by virtue of being old. Someone has to deem it worthy of appreciation, of being cared for and looked after. This does not always happen. Much of our cultural past can be had for next to nothing. Left unclaimed, it is denied the potential to matter.
Academically, attempts to justify the display of collections like this one are often founded on claims of their historical significance or renewed relevance. I chose the word ‘resonance’ to suggest a less tangible, more personal meaningfulness of objects that are invested with a collector’s passion and self-conscious longing.
(Im)memorabilia draws on my own hoard of cinema and radio related artefacts from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Few of them, shared here publicly for the first time, are of appreciable exchange value. Gradually, I have come to realise their significance as manifestations of my own marginality, my sense of otherness. Since I received many of these seemingly trivial, mass-produced objects as gifts, they are both extensions of myself and expressions of fellowship. It is a web of associations I sought to widen by calling on others to share their thoughts on the collector’s items displayed here.
Ultimately, (Im)memorabilia bespeaks a desire to come out and say: this is all I am. The trace I leave behind is compounded of little more than a few words and a small heap of paper.
Private Collections, Public Display
Do we collect things simply to indulge our passion for them? If so, why make a display of that passion? Showcasing seems calculated to raise certain objects to the status of ‘collectibles’ so as to advance the collector as connoisseur. And yet, might not the urge to exhibit our personal belongings be rather more elemental?
These questions came to mind when I researched the vast and apparently random collection of stuff that the queer Welsh dilettante George Powell (1842–82) bequeathed to Aberystwyth University. Powell’s curios ranged from a pair of Canadian snowshoes to a fragment of composer Robert Schumann’s coffin. They seemed to map out a journey, and his gesture of sharing struck me as an invitation to go in search of him.
Private collections may communicate intimate truths or express longings that cannot be articulated otherwise. An autobiographical act, their public display in – or bequest to – an institution of culture and learning betokens a desire to reach out, to come clean, to matter and belong.
[Artefacts from the Powell bequest were on display at the School of Art from 18 May to 11 September 2015. Since then, I have published two articles on Powell and his collection.]