(Im)memorabilia: Idle Matter/Latent Meaning
Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter. Memorabilia is matter we grant the capacity to mean differently.
The objects in this gallery, and in this display case, form a composite sketch of their collector. The portrait is fragmentary and remains incomplete. Planning this exhibition, I had no idea that, just a few weeks prior to its opening, I would travel to China to teach Art History. There, a Chinese artist made me a gift of this fan [upper right corner]. He said he would paint it should I return in the spring.
Images of the one hundred individual cards collected in two of these albums are projected onto one of the walls on the other side of this gallery.
The unmarked fan suggests stories yet unfolding. It also slaps me in the face for believing that words could adequately convey them. Teaching abroad made me doubtful of English, my second language, as a universal carrier of meaning. As a curator, I must learn to let objects speak.
Next to the fan, I placed artefacts from the collection of George Powell (1842–82), who lived in and near Aberystwyth for much of his life. The English-speaking collector did not leave behind any diaries. Instead, he communicates through his bequest.
(Artefacts from the Powell bequest were on display at the School of Art from 18 May to 11 September 2015.)
Forming Collection Habits: Glanzbilder
In my youth, collecting Glanzbilder (glossy pictures) was a popular activity among working-class children in Germany. Glanzbilder could be purchased at kiosks or stationary stores. We kept them in cardboard boxes, wrapped in tissue or foil, and organised them according to themes, size or value. On weekends, we showed off and traded our acquisitions.
Sticker albums became popular as well. Some of them were created as comic strips that had to be completed through the purchase of adhesive pictures. Collecting thus created a lifetime habit of buying, a desire for the next thing, and a feeling of dissatisfaction with the unfinished and the complete alike.
An adult variation on such collectibles was the cigarette card. Inserted into packets of cigarettes, such pictures were designed to increase consumption by rewarding loyal customers for their addiction. The pursuit of filling one these booklets may well have shortened the life of its collector.
Collection Habits and Addictions: Cigarette Cards
Private collections of ephemera often disappear into boxes. Some are relegated to the attic or moved into external storage. Many of us lack space in our homes to accommodate larger, bulkier items. Prints are kept away from sunlight to prolong their lives.
Some objects may be too small or fragile to be handled and displayed. These cigarette card images, enlarged and projected onto the wall, assume a new significance. They are a reminder that memorabilia may be forgotten through our very efforts of turning them into keepsakes
Today, newspapers, photographs and other printed ephemera are being digitise and discarded. In recent years, I have thrown out many personal photographs. I now have the images at my fingertips, but I came to regret disposing of the prints. The past is not experienced through sight alone. To feel its weight, we need to keep in touch with it, physically.
Value and Pricelessness
Researching for this exhibition, I realised that movie memorabilia have increased considerably in monetary value over the last decade. It means that my collection is not likely to grow. For the enjoyment of film at Aberystwyth, there’s always the Arts Centre cinema. Its manager, Gaz Bailey, is an avid collector. Asked about that, he replied:
For me, collecting movie posters and lobby cards is like owning a piece of the film itself. Advertising and promotion is part of a film’s journey from creation to exhibition, and the original posters are a memento from that time. I never bother with reprints. It’s always the originals.
The artwork itself is sometimes so well executed that it warrants special mention. Old cinema posters, especially from Europe, are often very striking. From a purely aesthetic point of view, they make great additions to any picture collection. Collecting posters and memorabilia is a lot of fun, and for anyone with a serious passion for film, to own a piece of history is priceless.
The Genuine Article and the Second-Rate
Ephemera are disposable objects designed for a specific purpose or moment in time. A marketing campaign, for instance. How they end up in private collections is often a mystery, as advertisements are traditionally created to generate sales, not to be resold. The history of their afterlife is largely unwritten.
The future path of this poster has been mapped out. It will leave my collection once the exhibition closes. It was intended as a gift to a comedian and collector who shares my appreciation for silent film clowns like Laurel and Hardy. Watching television when I was a child, I knew them as ‘Dick und Doof’ (German for ‘fat and stupid’).
Though it triggers childhood memories, this early 1960s poster by graphic artist Heinz Bonné has little appeal for me. To become truly collectible, it would have to be printed in its original language and date from the period in which the film was produced (1932). Such a collector’s item would be well beyond my means.
Collections and Curation
Collections evolve over time. So do exhibitions. My initial plan was to explore the role that ephemeral prints play in creating memorable moments and lasting impressions. The posters, lobby cards and the “Exhibitor’s Campaign Book” designed for the thriller The Secret Fury (1950) would have served to document the function and interplay of such promotional materials.
I always intended to draw mainly on my own archive of movie memorabilia; but I realised that I would have had to supplement my collection and go in search of specific prints to explore the chosen theme adequately. The proposed public display threatened to change the character and compromise the integrity of my private collection.
Gradually, the focus of this curatorial project became the collection – the nature of collecting – itself. As I reexamined its underlying principles and questioned its significance, I began to reflect upon the collection’s reasons for being.
These luggage labels were found in the home of amateur artist Francis Rudolf (1921–2005), whose prints, drawings and sketchbooks were gifted to the School of Art in 2006. It is not likely that Rudolf, a Latvian expatriate living in London, visited all the places advertised here. His tie suggests that he wanted to be seen as a man of the world.
Rudolf was a Renaissance man. His house was filled with objects he crafted; yet, as an artist, he turned to traditional media. He might not have seen a collage of found objects as a work of art or appreciated it as a tribute to his life’s journey. The boundaries of art, commerce and design have long been questioned; by some, they are passionately upheld.
Whether the works in this exhibition are art or artefacts is perhaps less important than the question whether silent objects can be coaxed into speaking and whether we find it worthwhile to listen and respond.
Collecting and Connecting: The Local Museum
Leaving Manhattan in 2004, I struggled to find myself in rural Wales. It is this struggle that compelled me to stage (Im)memorabilia. I feared that nothing I knew and felt eager to share could be of any consequence to anyone living here. A visit to Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth somewhat lessened my sense of dislocation.
Ceredigion Museum is a social history museum with over sixty thousand objects in its collection; among them, the radio set on display in this gallery. The building once housed a cinema. Advertisements like this, also from the Museum’s collection, drive home that Hollywood entertainment, despite its apparent remoteness from our lives, has long connected individuals far and wide.
The world came to Aberystwyth through the visual and performing arts. As Museum Designer Stuart Evans points out:
Harold Gale and his wife Olive took over the lease of the cinema in 1932. Their motto was ‘Amusement without Vulgarity’. They made extravagant claims about their establishment: ‘We say without any fear of contradiction that there is no bigger or better show given in Great Britain.’
The Temporal and the Trace
(Im)memorabilia is a fleeting performance. It will be replaced before long by another display. Apart from a few signs of wear and tear, there will be no evidence of its existence in this space. I invited my friend, the artist Maria Hayes, to create an ephemeral portrait of the exhibition, which itself is an attempt at self-portraiture.
About her work, Maria writes:
This is an observational drawing I made of Harry’s movements as he walked through the gallery and finalised the display. The drawing captures a passage of time in space, which may be replayed as you explore these marks.
When I draw movement, I remain focused on the subject. Sustained eye contact generates a deep engagement. Observation and drawing become integrated to the extent that the distance between the observer and the observed dissolves.
One of Maria’s paintings [pictured above] was reproduced for the cover of Immaterial Culture, my study of radio listening and its marginal status in the arts. Further drawings of this exhibition can be found in Maria’s sketchbook [shown below].
Carrying on and Letting Go
Evolving collections can provide a sense of continuum as well as control, especially in periods of personal crisis. We may find ourselves anew in mementos of the past. We may also see opportunity for growth when our lives suggest otherwise.
Meanwhile, displaying a private collection in a public space can be an unsettling experience for the collector. I was prepared to sense – and own up to – the insignificance of my pursuits. Now I feel estranged from my belongings. Do they still make up the person I believed myself to be? Do our belongings own us? Letting go, we might learn to define ourselves differently.
I invited visitors to share their impressions by writing on the card or email:
Take a card. Write down or draw something that you collect. Add your name, if you wish. Place the card in this box. Browse and share.
Once the exhibition had folded, I looked at the responses some of the visitors had written on the index cards I provided. Here are a few of them.