Cabinets, cases, collecting and display

And so we find ourselves on the edge of the year, without all that much inclination to look back (that’s a job that others can do with so much more depth and expertise). Things magazine feels increasingly marginal, hovering on the fringes of something that is happening elsewhere. Back when this magazine started, the collection belonged in the museum or to the obsessive. As the decades have progressed, the things that people collect and the way they display them have shifted into the digital realm, which in turn has reinvigorated the act of acquisition in the physical world.

But there’s something else afoot, something intangible and nagging but ultimately unavoidable. It has to do with ‘things’ and things, and the currency of imagery and favourites, likes, re-blogs and comments. For some time now we’ve felt like the internet is awash in an increasingly homogenous gloop of visual ephemera, a loosely curated stream of ‘cool stuff’ that gushes out of one or two sources and is then scooped up by an almost unlimited army of bottlers. What were once called ‘articles’, ‘features’ and ‘galleries’ are now relegated to the umbrella term ‘content’, and modern media has evolved into a mechanism for amassing and disseminating this content, often again and again, around and around, in the search for a percentage of the audience.

At the same time, we, the audience, are entirely complicit in perpetuating this swirl, giddily seizing on the most interesting scraps of ‘content’ to be re-circulated and re-purposed to create yet another little vortex within the grand spiral. Of course there are many notable exceptions, either in terms of presentation or their actual subject matter, but the overall feeling is one of being overwhelmed. What’s most interesting – and perhaps troubling – is the way in which the subject matter (the actual ‘content’) is changing in response to the means of presentation.

We could give any number of examples, but the general gist is this; the modern object is groomed for the display case, designed, planned and displayed in such a way that it will catch the eye of a hundred million consumer-collectors. This is a perverse inversion of traditional (and much criticised) museology, which was accused of taking the object and presenting it according to self-determined ideas about its use and origin; think of all those Victorian museum cabinets filled with a hundred variants of the nose flute or some such, drawn from cultures all over the world and arranged by size and colour, not age, origin and use. Over time, museology evolved and these displays were considered unhelpful and archaic.

And yet today, we are being explicitly invited to consider everything as being a little dollop from one giant homogenous lump of ‘contemporary culture’, an exercise in flattening and blending that takes away the delight of discovery. Physical metaphors are sometimes helpful. We’ve often thought of the internet as a vast cabinet, one that regresses almost infinitely into a series of drawers and cupboards, each containing ever smaller compartments. But what the internet seems to have become is a glass box of stuff, with everything on display all at once.

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12 Responses to Cabinets, cases, collecting and display

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