Objects are compelling. I don’t mean the glitter of diamonds, or the flash of a new Ferrari. Instead, I am referring to the “little” things, the common things, the stuff of daily life. What makes these items compelling? It is an intriguing question because the common items of our daily lives, those things that we use and reuse everyday, become invisible to us in the present. We don’t even think about them as we use them. Yet, they become invaluable to those in the future who will try to understand our history and our culture. As the “bad anthropologist,” Dr. Renee Beloq, explained to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “This is a common watch. Worth little today. But bury it in the ground for a hundred years and it becomes an artifact worth much to those who find it.” What is it that makes common objects from the past so compelling to us today?
The answer to this question has many aspects. An object may be compelling because it has monetary value. Think about the grave robbers throughout history who have plundered the tombs of the wealthy. I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe their motivation was economic gain, not thoughtful remembrance. An object may be compelling because it reminds us of past experiences. The ticket to a rock concert, that prom dress, the home run ball caught in the bleachers are all compelling for the memories that they bring back to us in a rush so real it is as if we were there again. Objects can be compelling because they teach us, or remind us, of something about ourselves. We all carry images of ourselves throughout our lives. That Fifth Grade report card with the prominent “D” in mathematics may alter some of those ideas, as will the lime green leisure suit with the wide white belt and/or the blue and white striped bellbottom pants and the brown platform shoes. We tend to remember ourselves in kindly fashion….sometimes fashion gently reminds us that we were slightly different than we remember. These are all good, and if you will, compelling reasons for the attraction of artifacts. There is one more; one that, regardless of age or experience, captures our attention.
Artifacts are compelling because every artifact contains a story. Regardless of your age, where you live, what you do for a living, how much money you do or do not make, or whether you are literate or not, stories dominate your life. They explain childhood, or college, or the birth of children or the deaths of loved ones. We create stories about our lives everyday. Around the dinner table, or the water cooler, we share the experiences of our lives with others through stories. The answer to “How was work?”, or “What did you do in school today?”, or “How are you?” comes in the form of a story. Facebook posts, “tweets” on Twitter, and “Selfies” on Instagram are stories….vignettes of our daily existence that we share with others. Stories are the ways in which we communicate with others in our society. Artifacts also tell stories.
Every artifact was created for a purpose. Someone had to think about its creation, its design, its manufacture and its use. Further, someone had to make the object. Others used it. Someone saved it, someone else threw it away. Someone else found it, and now someone (you) are analyzing it. How did it come into your hands? How many stories have we identified for just one object, 9 or 10? If we communicate with each other through storytelling, and if artifacts all contain 9 or 10 stories, then artifacts from the past communicate stories of their time to us in the present. They are not just stories about history. They are stories about math (creation, design, manufacture), science (manufacture, use), economics (transport, distribution), anthropology (ownership, retention, class, status), history (cause and effect) and Language Arts (how are you going to tell the story). Artifacts are compelling because they contain a rich trove of stories that tell us something about the past and assist us in understanding something about ourselves today. As the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan concluded in 1980, “Recognizing that the past is slipping into oblivion, we wish to rescue what we can. In the process we not only reclaim the people and the culture of an earlier time, but also enlarge and enrich our general conception of the world – and thereby, inevitably, though perhaps unintentionally, a sense of ourselves.”
Artifacts are compelling because they contain stories. Artifacts engage us because stories are the stuff of our lives. They reassure us that even though our experiences are fleeting, our stories will remain after us. Artifacts not only tell stories about the past, they also widen our vision of the present.