Monday, July 8, 2013

Monty: meanings and context online

We have a painting in our house of a boy. We call him Monty. He’s in early 19th cent garb, hands crossed on a desk, with what might be a watch in front of him. We think it’s a 20th century copy and we’ve never found the artist listed anywhere.

He’s called Monty because we stopped at Monte Carlo’s restaurant in Lynchburg after we bought him. We bought him because we had sat too long at an auction in Gretna, Virginia and our bid turned out to be the only one! He’s hung in our house for twenty years, and we remember him spooking our nieces when they came to visit (“he looks creepy”). He's a reminder of when we first had some excess disposable income (honestly, he was pretty cheap!) and when we started going to auctions and buying stuff we didn’t need.

If you’re still with me I was thinking of Monty regarding what we catalog and what gets shared when collections are posted online. Cataloging is much more about recording attributes about objects for tracking. The catalog record for Monty would only just hint at why he’s an important artifact for us. Obviously objects have meanings and associations beyond their physical characteristics, and Monty’s meaning is tied up in our personal history and the other objects in our collection. The painting isn’t a museum object, but the meaning imbedded in objects is  often be tangential to their physical form. Meaning comes from how those objects have related to other objects around them, and the time and place in which they exist.

In High Fidelity by Nick Hornby the main character, after breaking up with his girlfriend, re-catalogs his vinyl collection in autobiographical order (reminding us that cataloging is a cultural, not scientific activity). The meanings of the albums lies in their physical proximity.

I’m still picking through A History of the World in 100 Objects by (MacGregor 2011). It’s the contextual information that makes this such a great book, and it shows the power of material culture. There’s many reasons, and many audiences for online collections data, but I think when we put data online we must work as hard as possible to contextualize the objects, and let them exist within that broader context. And, if possible, we have to let others create (and hopefully) share their meanings of those objects. Someone else owned Monty once and, for them, it had a completely different set of associations and meanings. I’d love to know what they were.

Macgregor, Neil (2001) A History of the World in 100 Objects. Viking, New York.

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