In “Teaching Collections Management Anthropologically,” Cara Krmpotich details the iterative, multi-stage creation of a teaching collection for use by her Collections Management class at the University of Toronto. After briefly outlining the pedagogical importance of students’ embodied interactions with objects of material culture, Krmpotich discusses her initial challenge of not having a dedicated collection associated with her program when she began teaching at the University of Toronto. The subsection “Challenges, Part I” documents her first term teaching without a collection, instead using “objects brought in by students and random (though thoughtfully arranged) objects [she] could grab from home in order to try [their] hand[s] at cataloguing and identifying preventive conservation concerns and emerging challenges for the field” (113). While well intentioned, however, this makeshift, ad hoc collection does not work as Krmpotich hopes:
Still, the absence of a collection—of objects distinguished from “everyday life,” removed from general circulation—was a distinct challenge in my goal for students to embody collections management practices. When handling their own objects brought from home, students rarely changed their handling behavior. Objects obviously brought in for a lesson by the students or instructor, without recorded historic or artistic value, were not denaturalized enough … Within minutes, handling practices and collections behavior began to slide away from best practices toward everyday material culture interactions. (113, emphases added)
She continues, remarking that “[o]bjects brought from students’ homes also tended to have complete documentary information … in stark contrast to an ‘average’ museum record” (113) and, in addition, the “objects did not bear the traces or evidence of museum processes as fully accessioned museum objects do” (113). All of this leads Krmpotich to conclude, “[t]he brought-from-home objects failed to engender the necessary intellectual and bodily shifts from students useful for collections work and its subsequent theoretical deconstruction” (113). In the remainder of her article, Krmpotich is concerned both with creating a more suitable in-house teaching collection and with facilitating intra-university partnerships that allow for better collections management pedagogy.
In short, Krmpotich wants to denaturalize objects for pedagogical reasons, to “illuminate for students the rationale and methods of collections documentation and care” (114). Or, perhaps more fully stated, she wants to sufficiently denaturalize students’ objects in order to encourage pedagogically rich self-reflexivity regarding their subsequent naturalization within a museum collections context.
While this is certainly a pedagogically instructive exercise for Krmpotich and her students, the question remains open, however, as to how museums should handle this complex process of denaturalization and then (re?)naturalization within their (necessarily different) institutional contexts. This is of particular pertinence to museums that collect objects of material culture, specifically so-called “everyday” consumer commodities.
Simon J. Knell illustrates this point adroitly in “Museums, Reality, and the Material World,” using as an example Brian J. McVeigh’s work on Hello Kitty branded commodities and the sociology of consumption:
Take, for example, a simple purse with a Hello Kitty motif. Typical museum practice would perceive this as a late twentieth-century costume accessory which might be collected systemically recording individual and moment but never really thinking beyond that local context. For an adolescent girl, however, buying such a purse might also permit her to enter into a circle of friends. It also places her in a worldwide community of owners who share a relationship with this motif, and it also places her in a relationship to an older generation who are now courted by fashion houses using the motif to evoke nostalgia. If Hello Kitty becomes associated with a distinctive social group, then in a reflexive way it becomes representative of that group, and as a commodity it is surely then far more complex than the object a museum professional might perceive.
Marketing now not only sells such things [as the purse] but attempts to sell them by gaining sociological understanding of its audience. So what does a museum collect if it collects the purse? Just to collect it as an example of ‘today’ is to get drawn into an unacknowledged illusion. The owner of the purse is in fact part of global business, her tastes captured and reflected. Consumption here represents a sophisticated symbiosis between identity and big business … Thus, the association between the thing and its owner is not as museums tend to read it. (18, emphases added)
What Knell is emphasizing here is the multiplicity of meanings that a material (commodity) object can have in its pre-museally-(re)naturalized state, and the profound challenges that face museum professionals to, firstly, become aware of those meanings, and, secondly, once aware, to consider how or in what ways those meanings can be captured as the object is (re)naturalized in its new museum collections context.
For Knell, this is also, inevitably, related to questions of loss in museum collections:
As a captured fragment of context, we understand [an object’s] imperfections but counter these with a belief that in capturing the thing we also hold something of untapped and unrecognized potential. In other words, we have collected less than was there, but we have also collected more than we know! However, almost immediately we begin to lose what we have acquired as the object becomes naturalised within its new museum context: “A naturalized object has lost its anthropological strangeness. It is in that narrow sense desituated – members have forgotten the local nature of the object’s meaning or the actions that go into maintaining and recreating its meaning” (Bowker and Star 299). The losses we are willing to accept in our ‘museumisation’ of things are quite remarkable … to believe we can collect and keep without loss is to suffer an illusion, even if we don’t kill and stuff the object or put it in a museum. (25, emphasis added)
These meaning losses – degradations and subsequent re-(/over?)-inscriptions of meaning – should be of great interest to us in our course, thinking self-reflexively, as we are, about research collections – both their establishment and maintenance – and working, as we are, with objects of consumer culture like video game consoles, their peripherals, and, as book history specialists would remind us, trade bound books.
Interestingly, however, it is perhaps the smallest objects in the Richler Room that can prove to be the richest to contemplate in the terms above sketched. Placed crucially on the writer’s desk, these seemingly insignificant “knick-knacks” do their own kind of naturalized/ing ideological work, constructing a bureau-like verisimilitude that subconsciously subjectifies and predetermines the role of the viewer. While, like Knell’s example of the Hello Kitty purse, we may not be entirely aware of these objects’ exhaustive meanings as commodities circulating as naturalized in consumer culture, their liminal positioning – and, significantly, the cumulative/collaborative(/conspiratorial?) work that they do together as composite – in the Richler Room allows them to be both museally artifactual, but also “alive” in the (prescribed) present of the subjectified viewer (“Look at this messy, living, working desk – just like yours!”).
One object that exemplifies ephemera’s liminal positioning in the Richler Room is a simple see-through, blue-lettered “World’s Greatest Dad” plaque (hereafter referred to as WGD plaque). The WGD plaque is, itself, part of a collection of items that arrived (as donated) in a wooden document inbox. In turn, the items in this wooden document inbox comprise part of a larger lot of items bearing the label/categorization “Box #43,” which reflects the serial process that Richler’s possessions underwent in their transfer to storage, and, finally, to Concordia University.
Here is how the plaque appears in the collection’s appraisal documentation (done by The Word’s Adrian King Edwards in August 2014, following the collection’s initial inventory at Peerless Clothing in June/July 2013), as part of the contents of the wooden document inbox: “Wooden Document In Box [sic] with miscellaneous desk realia including: 2 metal letter openers in leather holders, stapler[,] cigars in ziplock bags, eraser, clips, World’s Greatest Dad plaque, Davidoff tobacco box, wolf [sic] Krakowski CD, film negatives, matchbook covers, etc. [further cataloguing required].”
The wooden document inbox containing “World’s Greatest Dad” plaque as part of “Box 43” appraised by Adrian King Edwards.
I also had Research Assistant Sean Gallagher help me find (and, importantly, not find) the WGD plaque in various Excel spreadsheets associated with the Richler donation.
“Box 43 and Box 157” spreadsheet showing wooden document inbox contents description identical to appraisal document.
Gallagher showed me the spreadsheet, “Box 43 and Box 157”(creation date: 26 August 2016) on the collection Dropbox that duplicates The Word’s appraisal description verbatim. Due to this, the WGD plaque is present as part of the wooden document inbox’s contents. However, in a spreadsheet entitled “Box 43” (creation date: 4 August 2017), this is the description of this same “Document Inbox with miscellaneous desk realia” under its specific “Scope and content note”: “Desk realia includes: Wolf Krokowski ‘Transmigrations’ CD, 2 metal letter openers in leather holders, Acco stapler, Montecristo and Partagas cigar each in ziplock bag, paper and binder clips, Davidoff tobacco box, film negatives and matchbooks.” While more detailed than King Edwards’ appraisal in some ways – note Krokowski’s CD title, stapler brand, and the cigar brands – the WGD plaque conspicuously disappears from this description.
“Box 43” spreadsheet showing “Scope and Content Note” for wooden document inbox lacking mention of “World’s Greatest Dad” plaque.
This is the way that Gallagher was able to account for these discrepancies in our correspondence on 17 October 2017:
I would say that the first inventory [at Peerless Clothing in June/July 2013] is what the appraisals [done by The Word’s Adrian King Edwards in August 2014] were made off of, while the current box inventory [“Box 43”] is trying its best to reflect what’s actually in the boxes 4 years later. Best guess about the plaque is that it was forgotten in the 2017 box inventory [“Box 43”] because it had become a permanent desk fixture and the “Box 43 and Box 157” file has been reopened in an attempt to return missing items to their rightful boxes. (emphasis added)
What is curious about the WGD plaque’s simultaneous presence and absence in the space’s very working documents is that it reifies the room’s own ambiguous, noncommittal approach to the (re)naturalization of its consumer commodity objects as museally artifactual, expressing, as Dr. Camlot summarized in my correspondence with him, the reality that “there has been no official decision about what items from the collection to showcase on the desk, up to now.” In the same way that the WGD plaque is both present and not to the room’s documents, the same can be said of its ideological work being both present – subjectifying the room’s viewer – while being elided as insignificant, “everyday,” knick-knack ephemera. In contrast to Krmpotich’s objects, sufficiently denaturalized and subsequently self-reflexively (re)naturalized within the (pedagogical) museum context, Richler’s knick-knacks blur these categories in an intellectually productive way perhaps analogous to how the Richler Room itself mediates between categories. Is it, as Concordia’s website states, the Mordecai Richler Reading Room? Or is it, as the domain of the recently launched catalogue attests, the Richler Library? These different terms bring with them ideological baggage – along with attendant approaches to collection access and preservation – and their simultaneous usage reminds us of this particular collection’s inherent ambiguity.
 Most literally through the process of cataloguing, as Krmpotich touches on when discussing teaching students content management system software, and encouraging them to question its categorical logic (116-7).
 Indeed, one of the lurking questions in Knell is what it would even mean to know these meanings exhaustively, or if that would be possible for even the most attuned/knowledgeable museum professional.
Camlot, Dr. Jason. Email correspondence. 17 Oct. 2017.
Gallagher, Sean. Email correspondence. 17 Oct. 2017.
Knell, Simon J. “Museums, Reality, and the Material World.” Museums in the Material World. Ed. Simon J. Knell. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-28.
Krmpotich, Cara. “Teaching Collections Management Anthropologically.” Museum Anthropology 38.2 (2015): 112-22.