The Young Collector
We’ve become a sound bite society. Actually, that’s kind of a sound bite itself. The term dates to the 1980’s during the Reagan era, when the nightly news was undergoing a dramatic makeover. Maybe it was residual news fatigue from the constant crisis state of the early 1970’s (Vietnam War and Watergate). Maybe it coincided with a dramatic technological step forward. Maybe the “Me” era’s self-interest was squeezing out any interest in the larger world. Whatever the reason, we were giving the news less of our attention, and the media and political response was to work hard on distilling everything down to short, pithy phrases designed to target our fleeting attention spans and convey an emotional impact, rather than an intellectual one.
For whatever the reason 30 years later, we are still distilling, condensing, and packing thoughts down into smaller and smaller and smaller spaces. CNN’s 24-hour loop tells news stories in a paragraph; the ticker cuts that down to one or two sentences; and, if pop culture dictates, all things will eventually be reduced to 140-character tweets or ten-word memes. It invites a “chicken or egg” question. Is this the result of our ever-shortening attention span, or is our attention span ever shortening because of this?
This is what we found ourselves mulling over recently after reading a Washington Post article on the demise of the American house museum. American house museums are, according to the article, in trouble. Visitations at such institutions have been slipping gently but steadily downhill, ever since 1976 and a huge bicentennial-related spike. Even the big boys, the crown jewels of house museums such as Mount Vernon and Monticello, are affected. For smaller house museums from Connecticut to Ohio to California, the number of weekly visitors is often smaller than the number of volunteer docents, which might not be surprising but certainly prompts closer examination when one realizes that attendance at many larger museums, the Smithsonian for instance, is on the rise. Attendance at the historically themed movies such as Lincoln (even Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is up, so clearly there is some interest, however twisted, in history.
So, we wondered, what gives? Maybe it’s that whole sound bite thing. The 24-hour news cycle has created such a steady barrage, such a high-voltage hum coming at us from our televisions and computers, even following us around on our smartphones, that we’ve become inured to everything. When we need to know something, it smacks us in the face. And one might well ask, do we even need to know anything? That’s what Google is for, isn’t it? Why clog your head up with information or read in great detail about an event or a topic when you can, with a few keystrokes, get the Cliff Notes version on Wikipedia? There’s no need for the full picture, just enough of a summary to get you through a cocktail party discussion. Maybe human beings are becoming “dumb terminals” themselves—no need to actually retain any information or truly learn anything.
“Eh,” one might think, “We’re busy. There’s so much more awareness and so much more to keep up with, so can you really blame us for living a Reader’s Digest life? So we’ve ceased to be details people. Big whoop.” Except that we haven’t really given up on details either. We’re occasionally very detail oriented, often as slavishly devoted to details as we are to the vagueness of the big picture. After all, how many headlines have you seen lately about Michelle Obama’s bangs or Beyonce’s lip-synching at the inauguration?
What we’ve become are black-and-white people. We’re uncomfortable with the gray area of the spectrum. Gray areas are where the meaningful (and necessarily difficult) conversations about things such as gun control and abortion take place, areas where we have to come up with some measure of compromise and give-and-take. It’s so much easier to attach ourselves to the pithy ends of the spectrum, places where phrases such as “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and “More guns, more death” reside.
The recent events in Newtown, Connecticut, typify how the American public responds to issues these days—the bigger-picture folks immediately launched a broad strokes battle about gun control, fueled by opinion pieces in every newspaper and on every network. The details gang headed to people such as HLN’s Nancy Grace for an in-depth discussion of topics about the victims’ hobbies and family pets. The election was the same way; very few were willing—or able—to spend any time in anything approximating a gray area. Perhaps that’s why the whole experience was so exhausting. There wasn’t the subtle friction of shifting between moderate positions but rather the full-blown torsion of being constantly wrenched in completely opposite directions.
And it doesn’t stop there. With school systems feeling pressure to “teach to the test,” the skill of truly learning is often marginalized in classrooms (by necessity—we’re not criticizing teachers), and history, along with other subjects, has too often been distilled down to the rote memorization of facts to be regurgitated at the tip of a No. 2 pencil. Our general cultural understanding of history is black and white, big picture. We need to believe the colonists were all heroic and that the founding fathers were always good men, that Confederate soldiers were all racists, and that our involvement in Vietnam was completely justified. Of course we know this isn’t the case, but with curricula crammed full and pressure to hit all the highlights, the full picture often eludes students. And, let’s face it, we find comfort in an uncomplicated, upbeat view of our own history, so we’re not in any hurry to disabuse ourselves of what could be called “the Disney version.”
So, we circle back toward what all this means for us as purveyors of history. Perhaps this lack of an understanding of or interest in the full spectrum is what is affecting historic house museums. House museums are microhistory. They are not easily diced up into historical sound bites, because they often present on a small scale the full complexities of history. Take Monticello, for example. Even if one strips away all the political context and just examines it as one home and Jefferson as one man, it’s an incredibly difficult story to tell in a linear, concise way—not because of who he was historically, but rather for the very reason we continue to be fascinated with him. Jefferson was truly human, filled with contradictions and contrary positions, unexplained or unfounded attitudes, often trying to do what he felt was right in the face of challenges and intricate influences. His life, any human life, in full view is, simply put, a lot to wrestle with. Honestly, it’s much less work to stroll through the Smithsonian, smiling at the iconography of our collective history, the warm and fuzzy highlights that stir powerful emotions of nostalgia, pride, and oneness: the Star-Spangled Banner, Archie Bunker’s chair, Lincoln’s hat, Dorothy’s slippers. No messy, muddy gray area filled with baffling financial decisions and slaveholding and potential illicit relationships for us on one of our vacation days, thank you very much.
So, what are we history folks to do? Let’s face it, we’re not exactly comfortable with the gray area either. The gray area is the kiss of death for many objects in the antiques marketplace—redware that could be European or American, furniture that could be from Pennsylvania or Indiana, needlework that could be Boston or London. We need to work hard at improving our comfort level with the gray area, and part of that begins simply enough with drawing bold, solid lines whenever possible between the big, sweeping panoramic view of history and objects.
Scholarship, people, scholarship! Rebuild the continuum by connecting the big topics of art, history, and culture to why German-American cabinetmakers used wedge dovetails, for instance. It will help if we’re willing to acknowledge gray areas and to appreciate objects even when they fit firmly outside the ends of the spectrum. Researching objects creates a path of stepping stones across the gray area and lays the foundation of a firmer trail across the mid-market murk.
And speaking of German-American cabinetmakers, regionalist questions such as this could be key in reviving the full range of history. Regionalism is the gray area, a place that deals with local knowledge, local people, local objects, but also requires an understanding of the larger issues in order to grasp how all the local threads fit within our greater historical tapestry. Making these connections are the things at which regional museums and historic house museums can excel, and this makes it all the more important that we support them however we can.
Ultimately, to extend the metaphor, we have a disease of our gray matter, a disease that lies at the core of things. Much of what we talk about in terms of increasing and capitalizing on the presence of young/new collectors is treating the symptom (a symptom, really—there are hundreds of cultural symptoms of our currently disengaged state), and in order to have long-term success, we need to treat the disease. Our role in this is to start offering a more complete picture of our—and our objects’—histories, in order to map our collective material culture brain.
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” Andrew and Hollie may be reached by e-mail <email@example.com>, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), via their blog (www.youngantiquecollectors.com), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.