The Collectors

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Human Biology display, Natural History Museum, London, 2018.

So, over thirty years later, these things are still pretty close to the surface:

The translucent chest of the Transformer in the shape of a Tyrannosaurus Rex opens up, letting you fold the shiny head of the techno-beast into the cavity. But none of the other limbs or parts go anywhere; all it seems to transform into is a headless mecha T-Rex.

Adam, He-Man’s princely alter ego, is notoriously cowardly. But then why does the toy of Adam have such a broad chest? Such massive biceps? He-Man, conversely, is a slender, trim barbarian. When Adam calls on whatever power the castle Grayskull donates to him, does it exchange muscle mass for strength?

An elderly neighbour gives me a G.I. Joe figurine, a form of contraband in our house. He has a white shirt, black gloves, a bandanna and a red beard. I assume his name is Joe.

Upper Deck include a hologram in their annual series of baseball cards. All it is rumoured to depict is their logo in reflective gold. Each is listed as worth upwards of two hundred dollars. My brother and I invest together in buying a whole box – 20 packs – tearing open the thick foil and shuffling through each quickly. I am anxious: if he finds it instead of me, will he split the money with me when we sell it? We don’t find a hologram. The cards are tucked back into the flayed packets, where they remain.

We queue for hours to get illustrator Jim Lee’s autograph at a comic convention. First we had to go find something to sign, finding a few copies of WildC.A.T.S. issue 13, his most recent cover art. I don’t even remember interacting with him, just walking away contentedly holding two signed copies; only to realise a few steps later my thumb was covered in the silver marker he’d used, and that the stacked copies had smudged the drying ink. I give my brother the more streaked copy, since I’d done most of the queuing, while I put the one with a slight fingerprint in a white plastic frame.

In the comic shop just across the parking lot from the mall, my brother opens a pack of X-Men trading cards, to find a company logo hologram inside. The man at the counter is impressed, and looks it up in that month’s price guide, which says it’s worth a whole one hundred and fifty dollars. He offers to buy it for twenty.

 

I did a count once of all my collections: hats, badges, pins, stamps, keychains, rocks, coins, comics, baseball cards, comic book cards. I remember arriving at a figure of sixty-something, boasting to whoever would listen that I was practically a collector of collections. I was no philatelist or numismatic, that was plain: the stamps were stuffed into overflowing envelopes given by my parents’ international friends; a few scotch-taped hurriedly into a lined notebook under country headings; the rock ‘collection’ an old cigar box tumbling with a small handful of quartz and fool’s gold gleaned from toy mines and museum gift shops.

I’d included in my collection count things like shoes and books, probably itemising socks, shorts, T-shirts separately to swell the ranks. I knew it was stretching things a bit, but the attitude now seems to hold a kind of accuracy, recognising these things that we habitually hoard around us for what they are; though for some reason it’s only what we touch less, use less, that counts as a thing that is collected.

The hoarding impulse is simply an initial spark. What was floating around abundantly at that point in the suburban American hypercolor ether of the late 1980s and early ’90s was the notion of collectibles: special and limited editions, limited times only, wraparound chromium covers, things like cereal boxes or candy bar wrappers being embossed with silver foil or imprinted with holograms. Growing up at a time when most the cartoons on the TV were elaborations to shift toys (M.A.S.K., Transformers, G.I. Joe, Jem and the Holograms, He-Man, ThunderCats, BraveStarr, My Little Pony, Care Bears, and on and on) and casual, mass print items like comic books were being re-cast from drugstore rack fodder to speculative collectors’ items; when only one brand of baseball cards still came with dusty, stiff pink chewing gum—these vehicles were creating a new kind of proximity between commerce and the imagination. This was the real take-off point of multi-platform branding, beyond all the radio programming and cereal box celebrities you could dream of; seeding the market deeper to the point where buyers would instead imagine themselves as devotees, followers, fans.

The essence of collectibles is some necessity of a belief in the transaction: that in order to have value as an item to collect, at some point, in a future, you will have to part with it. If one definition of a collection is that its objects are ‘kept temporarily or permanently out of the economic circuit’[i], the collectible is just a temporary holding, with the circuit being more the goal in mind. The acquisition, preservation, holding it close to your grotty little bosom, is ultimately less consequential than to be able to pass it on. Which is all well and good for, say, the mindset of the professional speculator, the full-time gambler, the property developer: an investment, an asset to be traded. And though we referred to them as trading cards, I don’t think I ever passed one to anyone else. They went straight into sheets of small, plastic pockets, and into a ring binder that is still sitting on a shelf in my parents’ house. Which is to ask, what actual allure does the notion of collectibles have to an eight year old?

The early 1930s saw the first use of the phrase ‘collector’s item’, which suggests a proliferation and diffusion of an amount of stuff that necessitates such a phrase. The most common forms of plastic, those which we use in packaging and bottles, had just been made industrially viable, enabling the production of endless tchotchkes that needed to get off the shelves. Caramel, gum and cigarette companies had long been including ‘gifts’ in the form of illustrated portraits of sports players in their packets. Pulp magazines, started as a way to get advertising to readers, had at the time just transformed into comic book detective and action stories, a disposable dimestore treat for kids; but those were only considered worthy of collection long after (and because) many of them were thrown away.

‘Collector’s item’ itself comes from ‘collector’s piece’, the latter being somehow more singular, venerated, pointing more directly to the origins of collections in Renaissance halls and libraries, private obsessions and wealthy commissions. A painting, an ornate carved chair, a stuffed walrus—these might be ‘pieces’. A set of plastic figurines of the Atlanta Braves’ former mascot ‘Chief Noc-A-Homa’, a mohawked native American finally phased out only in the late ’80s as a racist stereotype—these are ‘items’.

Fast forward to the early ’90s: Valiant, an independent comic publisher known mainly for their refusal to adhere to the Comics Code—which basically meant their stories had a bit of gore and nudity—released Rai number 0. This wasn’t particularly remarkable in itself; when comic publishers realised there was only a certain number of first issues they could do, resorting to zero was apparently the next best step. The issue was meant to be an explanatory prequel for the character, a sort of albino ninja clone who used a lot of guns. The cover, if I remember correctly, had spatters of fake blood you could scratch off. I got two copies, one to read and one to bag up and keep, complete with a cardboard backing board to make sure it didn’t get bent. I can guarantee that almost every boy my age who read comics has exactly the same box of comics stored somewhere: the four various issues of new Supermen after Superman was supposedly killed; the hologrammed cover of Spiderman from when he got some shiny, metallic new costume for a few issues; the first maybe ten issues of Spawn, etc. They remain in the box, a stored away set of not-quite memories, accumulating nothing.

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Hall of Human Biology, Natural History Museum, London, 2018.

Down the intricately ornate hall, past the replica dodo, the stuffed vulture and the suspended whale skeleton, is an alien. It is slim, with a humanoid head; two antennae sprouting from its forehead. A bright green hand reaches through a hole broken in the glass that contains it, and if you touch it lights come on while one eye blinks mechanically. Next to it is a life-sized photo of a gaggle of press photographers and a TV cameraman, each one with a speech bubble asking a question: ‘What does it look like?’; ‘Did you touch it?’; ‘Did it smell?’

The display is part of the memory section of the Hall of Human Biology in London’s Natural History Museum. An animatronic life form from another planet may seem an unusual choice for a way to analyse human perception, though the hall itself is filled with a certain anachronistic distemper. We are used to the Victoriana of the museum: taxonomic displays, mounted remains of animals, butterflies pinned to boards in wooden vitrines, all clearly labelled as a supposed standard mode of presenting something that was formerly living, or an integrated part of our planet. The Hall of Human Biology is more closely outdated, filled with fading displays of visual illusions, 3D cross-section models of naked men that look like Kris Kristofferson, and primary colour illustrations that are distinctly of the 1970s and all its exuberance and ungainly experimentation.

The Natural History museum was previously part of the British Museum, arriving in its current Gothic Revival building in 1881; one of the first of its kind in the Western world, and, most importantly, one of the first large-scale, public-facing museums. While only one percent of the museum’s 70 million specimens are on view, the Natural History Museum is curiously positioned as a representation of the shift from private collecting, an aspirational, personal act—whether out of devotion to the thing itself, or some fancy of riches that it might bring—to a public collection, something which speaks towards implicating a multitude.

The Polish historian Krysztof Pomian described museums elegantly as ‘meeting-places where the social fabric can be rewoven’[ii], which feels like quite an idealistic euphemism for the instructional and ideological imperatives behind such a weaving. Collecting for a public involves a form of generalising, projecting a different kind of value: what, culturally, should be preserved, seen, held up as an example, often sweeping differences and errant facts aside. Pomian describes collections as a way of communicating with the ‘invisible’; that which is beyond us—individually, mortally, temporally. Relics in churches, for example, stand as proof of an idea, held in place where people might come to verify that claim, though any diplodocus or dodo could be viewed similarly; signs from the past, belief in a future.

The invisible of the collection is also a literal one: firstly, all that is not part of the collection, what the museum delineates is outside its walls, beyond its remit, or deemed not worth collecting. And more formatively, what is part of the collection but remains in a warehouse in the outskirts of town, or tucked into a basement drawer. The specimens in storage might not be forgotten, but they are certainly not present, functioning more like a subconscious, or supporting web, to those items displayed: all the unseen objects give weight and meaning to those that are seen. A museum is, primarily, what it is not.

In the 1930’s, natural history museums in Europe and North America were struggling: visitor numbers were low, and the traditional display methods of dioramas and vitrines were being critiqued as outdated, static, uninvolving. What began was a decades-long shift not just in display design, but more fundamentally in the way that museums were meant to engage with their public. ‘Modernisation’ meant creating themes, props, narratives and things that would move and could be touched, aspects that the scientists within these institutions regarded as theatrical simplifications, if not distracting fictions. It was described as creating a ‘dynamic visual framework’[iii]. In 1939, the Boston Museum of Natural History rebranded itself as the Boston Museum of Science, including things like live owls and insects to draw in audiences; in 1963, the Smithsonian renovated their Hall of Ocean Life to include a plastic blue whale and architectural design to give the area a ‘marine feel’.

The opening of San Francisco’s Exploratorium in 1969 could be seen as a culmination of this approach: an institution geared fully towards this brand of ‘interaction’, which moved away from scientific research and instead focused on exhibition-making that drew heavily on cinema and educational models, and set the standard for most institutional notions of ‘audience engagement’ still at work today. This path towards exposition and accommodation paves the way to museum’s current precarious status as a hybrid of sorts, something between a town hall and a mall, where emphasis is put on the café, the shop, or the museum as a pleasant backdrop for a wedding, rather than on the content of the display. It’s a change attributed to ‘what audiences expect’, but perhaps it says more, at any one time, about what kind of ‘invisible’ we are looking for.

The Hall of Human Biology was a pilot project, the first area of the Natural History Museum to be redesigned as part of a ‘New Exhibition Scheme’ initiated in 1968. The new director ‘wanted something that would impress; catch the eye, the media and so on’[iv], so sections from hormones to learning were devised and designed. Building a temporary exhibition framework within the sandstone arches, just next to the Rare and Unusual Sponges display, spacious presentations asked ‘What are we made of?’; a life-sized collage of people, pointedly multicultural though everyone was dressed, kids included, in formal western clothing, noted: ‘We are all different. But we are all like our parents. Why?’; a model of spiralling DNA structure stretched from floor to ceiling. A head, resembling that of Jim Broadbent, sat in a display case with a quarter cut away to reveal the placement and texture of the brain and surrounding tissue. A giant concrete drop reminded people of the fact that we are 70% water, and to stay hydrated. Opened to the public in 1977, it was seen as a new way of working, a new way of presenting science, a new way of having a collection that wasn’t just showing specimens but activities and ideas.

Today, it feels like a neglected funhouse, comical and worn. There must have been a further update at some point in the ’80s; reducing the expansive, but non-interactive displays, making way for more video. The large beach photograph and smiling snowman-like sandman that welcomed new visitors has disappeared, replaced instead with a more menacing, squat blob of a sandman hiding in a corner as you come in. The ‘adrenaline’ display, originally showing a suave, sun dappled bearded man over a set of photos, has been replaced with a grim video of a young boy running away from a German Shepherd alongside an abandoned warehouse. And the alien.

Across from it is an animated video that is intended to show how our memory receives information: a blue box with a slot in top is marked ‘MEMORY’. Into the slot go: a bottle of whiskey, a car, a gold watch, a black shoe and a truck. Here, it seems, is a discrete snapshot of a list of priorities for those who devised the section; a revealing instance of who they imagine themselves, and their public, to be. The gruff manliness of these items is a reminder that a museum isn’t actually a civic space, but more the performance of collecting made visible. How distant and close it seems to us now is telling: every museum has always been a dynamic framework, but generally moving at a pace that isn’t commonly considered. It has at times embodied the illusion of knowing, of holding, everything; and at others, it has been simply a repository for material impulses—things that somebody, somewhere, wanted to remember.

 

At some point, up staying with my grandmother, she casually mentioned that some of grandpa’s old baseball cards were still lying around somewhere. My brother and I, still in the grip of collectible rabies, tried as casually as possible to ask if she could find them, our minds reeling like slot machines with the possibilities. They could be worth thousands! A small pile of thick cardboard cards, almost like drink coasters, arrived—frayed at their browned edges—with the remark as she walked out that ‘Brian and Barney might’ve been at them.’ Rifling through them, our visions of some kind of wealth and stardom wilted when it turned out that yes, that our uncles had as kids marked each card with blunt pencils, writing new nicknames for each player across the front. We thought we could salvage them, going at them with erasers, only to find the image disappearing, and the deep imprint of the blunt pencil went nowhere. We gave up on them as worthless.

We kept one each. The other bits of card and paper still sit in their plastic sheets, stored away forgotten. The one I have is the only card worth keeping, salvaged from the tomb of the collection; through that, becoming something like the ideal collectible, what we might want every museum piece to be: a sort of scratched kaleidoscopic view on generations of desires—seeing, wanting to be seen, inscribing ourselves into the future—and the ways we learn to hold them: a frayed drawing of Stonewall Jackson, scrawled with ‘Rockface Jones’.

 

Originally commissioned by Scott Mason, published in A Legacy In Vanishing (Renaro, 2018), accompanying the exhibition of the same name at New Walk Museum Leicester, March – April 2019.

 

[i]                 Krysztof Pomian, Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice 1500 – 1800 (trans. Elizabeth Wiles-Portier, Oxford: Polity Press, 1990), page 9.

[ii]                Pomian, Collectors and Curiosities, page 2.

[iii]               AMNH Department of Animal Behavior head Gladwyn Kingsley Noble, quoted in Victoria Cain and Karen Rader, ‘From Natural History to Science: Display and the transformation of American museums of nature and science’, Museums and Society Journal, Vol 6, No. 2, 2008.

[iv]               Brian Rosen, a former employee of the Natural History Museum involved in designing the Hall of Human Biology, in the video ‘Exhibitions: Hall of Human Biology’, available at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/science-facilities/cahr/projects-partnerships/museum-lives/database/index.php?request=browse&irn=1983&index=1987

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