collection and curation

Although I have a degree in Library Science, what really interests me is not the controlled curation of objects (although it has its place) but the individual decisions made on a day to day basis that result in how and why people keep and display objects. For any purpose – home decoration, store display, knick knack collections, what people keep in their gloveboxes. What drives those decisions? First to acquire, and then to display?

I ran across this display the other day in Seattle and it struck me as decidedly un-Seattle (at least the Amazon-Seattle I moved to) and more Midwestern in feel:


Sorry for the reflection, but I think you get the point.

This was the sole display window at a small lumber shop. I was struck by how intentional this display is – and how it is in no way intended to sell lumber. Nothing in it is without meaning or purpose. Everything is color-coordinated and carefully placed. It is a celebration of an idealized United States of America, as protected by our war heroes.

It’s easy to gloss over this as just being full of flags and shabby chic antiques, but when you really look you realize just how meticulous this display is. In trying to analyze this I wrote a detailed description of the entire image. I will spare you the whole thing, but here’s a description of the doll visible through the leftmost pane of glass:

To the right of the pole is a small, shabby-looking square white stool. Atop the stool stands a female doll about 2 feet tall, wearing a star-spangled cap with white lace trim and red bows. Her blouse is white and ruffly, with a high lace neck that is lined on the inside with more of the blue-and-white star fabric, and a red ribbon tied at the throat. The sleeves of the blouse are blue and white starred, with red ribbons at the wrists. One of the streamers is loosely draped across her arms. The right hand holds an American flag. Her dress has a bodice with straps made from a fabric that boasts tiny flags with four red stripes, three white stripes, and five stars on a blue background. The skirt of the dress is vertical red stripes, with the blue and white star fabric forming a large hem, finished with red piping. The doll is barefoot.

This doll wasn’t just dressed meticulously – if I had to guess, the outfit was made for the doll, and clearly made with great care and attention to every last detail.

For me this display really exemplifies the difference between collection and curation, which often overlap but aren’t the same. Any attic in Indiana (or apparently, Washington) might have some of these objects in it, but it is the careful and purposeful placement of these objects, with the stars – the portraits of the man and woman in uniform – in the center, surrounded by carefully chosen images and objects of Traditional America.

How do we make these curatorial choices? Whether it’s a museum display, a lumber store’s independence day display, or the photos and knick-knacks you keep on your desk, what drives those decisions? Which objects do you bring, where do you place them, and why and when do you move or rotate them?

This seems worth thinking about, too, with respect to the ongoing interest in “collecting games” like Neko Atsume or of course, Pokemon GO.  But that is a topic for another day.




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