Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Good Things About Things -- A "raw" excerpt from a work in progress

Last month, I participated in National Novel Writing Month for the first time. The challenge is to write the first draft of a 50,000 -word novel in 30 days, but I was a part of the minority who chose to work in a different format. I drafted a 50k-word book of essays about life lessons from being a museum guide. The working title is "On Creaky Floors: Wit and Wisdom on the Life of a Museum Guide," but who knows how many times that will change as a more final version of the book takes shape. I celebrate Christmas and I recently finished my present shopping, so now feels like a good time to post this raw (unedited) excerpt about relationships with material things.

Becoming a “museum person” also helped me understand and affirm my relationship with material things. I say museum person here rather than guide, because I don’t think this particular kind of self-identification needs to be limited to staff and volunteers -- frequent museum-goers can have this feeling, too. As a counterargument to the constant commercial messaging of “buy, buy, buy!” we also get magazine articles and blog posts saying “minimalism is the answer, stop caring about stuff and you’ll be free and happy.” For some people, not having attachments to physical things is a core part of their philosophy or even their religion, and if it works for them, I’m glad. But for me, I’m not sure that would work. I don’t want to be on the buy buy buy train, and I don’t want to discard things just because there’s a new version out there, but I love some material things. I love family heirlooms (mine and other families’), I’m a knitter and I love yarn, I love the feeling and smell of physical books in my hands. I love to browse craft fairs as well as museums to marvel at the breadth and beauty of the things that people can make. I used to feel a little bit bad about this. Some of the anti-consumerist writing out there, and certainly some of the people who espouse those views, take on a moralist tone and imply -- or flat-out say -- that being attached to material things is weak or selfish. But in becoming intimately connected with museums, I’ve been able to recognize that the feelings I feel towards objects do not have an inherent morality to them. Recognizing the beauty in physical things,  associating them with delicious physical sensations (such as the feeling of a soft wool yarn on my fingers) or being moved by the intellectual or emotional connections they have in your mind is common and natural. One could even wax poetic about this tendency and say it’s a part of what makes us human, but that would be assigning another moral judgement on loving things, this time a positive one.

I’ve been able to deepen my understanding of the good things about things by studying material culture. This term, used mostly in history and anthropology, refers to the parts of culture that are expressed through material things. To the uninitiated it kind of sounds like it means the culture of materialism, and that’s a problem with the term, although I don’t know how that problem would be solved. But in fact, material culture is the study of any human-made objects, and what we do with them. Looking at history from a material culture perspective can mean looking at how new technologies for the household both enabled and celebrated a rising middle class to have leisure time in the first half of  the twentieth century. It can mean looking at how one carpenter’s bench was handed down through several owners and what modifications were made to it, and seeing evidence of changing styles of work. Looking at material culture for what it can tell us about the people who create, use, and even preserve it has helped me understand my own relationships with material things. This, and just spending time in museum galleries, has reminded me that there is a middle ground between having no material attachments and constant consumerism. Some things are unimportant, and some things are important. For my own part, I believe morality only comes into play when the way that you gain or keep things hurts others -- and to be sure, in our global economy that’s a relevant concern. The more I spend time in museums, the more artifacts and works of art I fall in love with, and they enrich my life.

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