Like so many things, the meaning of an object is determined by what we bring to it – the life experiences we have that make the object significant to us. I am currently working at a historic house site, a mansion full of objects generally viewed as “significant.” When giving tours, I always find it interesting to see which objects people connect with or comment on. It varies from person to person, but the common link is that people are most interested in the objects that inspire them to share their own personal stories.
Part of the tour includes a changing exhibit. One of our recent exhibits featured lace & lace making. Staff speculated on how successful it was, on the engagement of visitors, & on the “significance” of the objects (many being loaned, instead of family pieces) – the general opinion was lukewarm.
In retrospect, I have a renewed appreciation for that lace exhibit. Sure, on the surface, the content didn’t seem to have the mass recognition that, say, the current exhibit about the Civil War does. But those objects – little lace doilies, old lace tablecloths, summer gloves – did something really wonderful – they inspired visitors to share their stories.
These “objects to remember by” served as seeds for stories about family dinners replete handmade lace tablecloths, visits to elderly aunts’ homes with doilies on the sofas, and times spent with a grandmother learning to crochet or sew. These conventionally “girly” objects had the power to speak to men & women alike & spanned generations. By stirring up old memories, they invited visitors to share a bit of their “intangible heritage.”
I think I will listen more intently to these stories visitors tell on tour. I’m realizing that more is happening than just an exchange of information – these visitors are sharing a bit of themselves.