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The Museum of You?

January 5, 2010

Jane began to think about the sleigh.  Really, a sleigh like this should be in a museum.

It was then that the idea of the Moffats having a museum popped into her head.  A museum in the barn!  A special museum!  A collection of things that had been important to one, some, or all of the Moffats.  THE MOFFAT MUSEUM!

In this town named Cranbury, where three thousand people lived…it said so on a sign at the Cumberland Avenue Bridge:  “Entering Cranbury, population 3,000” … there was not one museum!  There were schools, stores, houses, the library, the Town Hall, a green with two churches on it; and there were little brooks, large fields, some cows, and plenty of places to go to, take walks to or take a trolley car to:  Savin Rock, Lighthouse Point, and more.  But no museum of any sort… art, science, or anything!  “There are museums,” Joey had told her, “for every known thing somewhere in the world.”….

“Ah!” murmured Jane, standing up now and going close to the barn.  She addressed it.  “Barn!  You may soon become the first and only museum in Cranbury.  No museum here?  We’ll change that!  ‘First’ things or any treasured things of any Moffat!”

This exuberant brainstorm comes from Jane Moffat in The Moffat Museum by children’s author Eleanor Estes.  It has me wondering what things my children would choose to put in a family museum.  If we still observed elaborate mourning rituals, the youngest would probably create something related to the loss of his beloved plush squirrel, acquired when he was only two years old on an expedition to Central Park so I could do research for my first grad school paper.  Would the eldest submit his dragon collection, or maybe the bike gloves he wore on a life-changing trip peddling with his grandfather from D.C. to Pittsburgh?

Why do we impart such meaning to objects?  How do museums get visitors to make the same connections — or create their own emotional response?  Objects become touchstones to our past, but as we lose touch with the story we disconnect from the artifacts.  They lose meaning.

Howard Mansfield studies this intriguing alchemy of object/meaning/memory/emotion in his book In the Memory House.  In the first part, he describes his investigation of town histories and little one-room town museums.  These places are the respositories of singular and community memory.  A hall of hodge-podge revealing — what?

Brownington, Vermont, is home to the Old Stone House Museum and a grand total of 708 people at the time Mansfield was making his rounds. 

The Orleans County Historical Society runs the Old Stone House Museum.  This is a populist museum in a way that would set any curator’s teeth on edge.  For sixty years people have been donating what they thought should be there.  Sometimes these treasured objects were on their way to the dump when their owner hesitated, thought, “Oh what the heck, I’ve got a few minutes before the ball game,” and left it to the ages instead.  Sometimes a rare eighteenth-century baby cradle is donated and sometimes a bottle filled with barley grain.  That bottle is easily overshadowed by the other 4,999 objects in the collection, but it well explains the whole museum.

“This barley was grown in 1883 and given by Mrs. Selden Gray.”  Why this?  Why leave a bottle of grain in the perpetual care of neighbors and their descendants?  Who would want to see it?  It’s not even a rock collection, not a stuffed owl or a wedding dress or a three-shelf history of the light bulb.

Here’s my guess:  To Mrs. Selden Gray it was the story of 1883 in a bottle:  sowing the seed, the rainy spring, the dry summer (or the dry spring and the rainy summer), the blight that threatened, the sickness and health that came along that summer, the day they put aside their work to see the traveling carnival, the harvest, the harvest supper, the meals made from the barley, the animals fed, the barley bartered or sold to neighbors.  A harvest corked for one hundred years, a low-tech time capsule.  This was life, she was saying.

At least, that is what I presume.  Maybe it was just some barley she had around the house.  You can read too much into these things.  The historical record is distorted by the nasty fact that surviving artifacts are unrepresentative.  The Wedding Dress Problem, preservationists sometimes call it.  Historical societies and house museums have many wedding dresses, but who saved the workday clothes?  Few survive.  The same with the houses saved; there are many mansions but few workingman’s cottages.    — Howard Mansfield, In the Memory House

With all that we own in these days, in this consumer age, what objects will we impart with significance and reverence?  Mansfield notes the significance “of what is saved and what discarded, who is remembered and why” — what memories will we “shepherd toward the next generation”?

What would you select to put in the museum?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. goose permalink
    January 6, 2010 5:31 am


    this post struck me and i’m surprised nobody commented on it yet. of course, my first thought was dual – would people donate something because they thought the story behind it was important or would they donate because they wanted to be one of the people telling the story, therefore placing a level of significance on themselves (ie. a bottle of barley)?

    oddly enough, i have a bottle with a few grains of barley – i got the barley from the yards brewery and the bottle from will zinn – one of our former classmates. right now it is in a box (like most of my stuff), but i used to, and will again, have it on a shelf so that i have a memento of both will and the brewery tour that went on with kate.

    unless we employ interior designers, our homes act as these museums to our own personal history. this is especially true for those of us that horde keepsakes and whatnots. we offer free admission to our friends and acquaintances, and if they are the curious type, they may choose to peruse our shelves and walls in an attempt to learn more about their host.

    for a gag, some of my most notable items:
    a plaster goose head (about 3″ beak to back of head) that i used to carry around when i was a baby – apparently it was my favorite toy.
    my grandmother’s pearl engagement ring which she gave me for my high school graduation.
    and of course, my father’s wool hat, which he bought in italy, and i wore religiously for years at the very least to keep the rain off my glasses. it is consequently riddled with mildew, rather disgusting, and recently retired. in many circles i am defined by that hat -frank matero couldn’t recognize me if i wasn’t wearing it.

    most things are replaceable. these are not.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      January 7, 2010 11:35 pm

      Here’s what’s so amazing about the things you’ve chosen — they are so evocative! I have an adorable vision of you toddling around clutching a goose head (aha! GOOSE!). I can almost hear the laughter you probably connect with your own bottle of barley. Mid-conversation with someone, a clear image of you wearing the hat you describe flashed into my head! Such supremely personal things for you and yet such wonderful mementos of you, what you do and who you are! Thanks so much for sharing these with “the museum.”

  2. Bruce permalink
    January 7, 2010 11:15 pm

    Hi Sabra, The text below is something I have just posted on – Bruce

    Sabra Smith has a Blog, a History Blog to be exact. Or is it?? During my first visit I was entertained and informed. More importantly, I was stimulated. Beyond the people, places, and things to which I was introduced (entertainment), and the names and dates related to me (information). I was stimulated.
    Sabra’s blog is equally precious for the writer and the reader. Her discourses, musings, travelogues, and photos certainly provide an outlet for her ample creativity. As for me, I was stimulated to roam through her blog because every click opened a new vista. The views of hers, and the links she has provided, took me on a tour. One is tempted to think of it as a ramble with no particular direction. Perhaps. But the ‘ramble’ had me wondering about history. Was history a chocolate pot, an 18th century stone barn, or, the memory of things and people older than us?

    Go ahead. Click the link. But look at the clock first. When/if you sign off, look at the clock again. You will have gone ahead in time while going back in time – wondering about the connections between the two.
    A Time Machine indeed!

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      January 7, 2010 11:30 pm

      Bruce — I am honored! And I blush! Thank you so much! (And do tell — what would you offer to the museum?)

      • Bruce permalink
        January 8, 2010 4:18 pm

        Blush not faire maid of yonder vale,
        The talent of others, ‘gainst yours doth pale.
        When Truth be told to compliment,
        Then ’tis a fact which is meant.

        But as for a museum entry…
        My father (1912-1983) was a machinist and mechanic. Skilled in making things and keeping machinery running, he nearly always had a smell (fragrance?) of oil,grease,gasoline, and the peculiar smell of metallic dust. His wrenches, hammers, chisels, lathe, and drills are gone. But, the item I still have is a two quart copper pitcher, coated with lead on the inside. His name is stamped on the handle. He used it to pour motor oil after dispensing it from a larger container.
        I don’t know how old it is – 20’s, 30’s perhaps? It is a form of container not made or used anymore. When I hold it to my nose, it still has a faint oily smell. Probably an unpleasant smell to many but it reminds me of him and his work. It was work which was once very common but less so these days. It speaks to me of a generation of blue collar workers – greasy, sweating, working hard, skilled to the nth degree in the use calipers, micrometers, scales, and other arcane devices.
        My nephews and the kids I see, don’t know that work and its lifestyle. They know the glow of a PC monitor, the hum of the cooling fan, and the click of of the keyboard. My father’s old copper pitcher, once so ubiquitous so as to escape mention, is now an oddity, “whats that Uncle Bruce?” But, at the moment of the question, the pitcher becomes a keyhole to look through as I tell him the story of ‘way back when’….

      • Sabra Smith permalink*
        January 8, 2010 5:56 pm

        Bruce, your oil can has evoked a memory of my own — I took my kids to see the USS Nautilus submarine (a National Historic Landmark) in Groton, Connecticut (another place I used to live). I climbed down into that submarine and there’s a smell similar to what you describe — it’s metal and machines and oil — that brought me back to visiting my dad on the ship, seeing his tiny stateroom, going to change of command ceremonies, going out to sea on one of the dependents’ cruises, having my birthday party in the wardroom… Ah, the power of fragrance to evoke.

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