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

  1. fwainBill says:

    I think your article does address what is happening. People are not collecting or taking to the task of walking through life picking up the things which affects them. I came across a photo of an art poster which I saved up to buy in 1976 as a teenager. There it was on my screen. I still have that poster and what it represents is more than an image. The internet has become what some museums have become. A place to wonder through and then tell people your smarter because you saw an video exhibit for 15 about early man. Love the post and look forward to reading your archives.

  2. Jim Hughes says:

    “The internet seems to have become a glass box of stuff, with everything on display all at once.” Exactly. The ability to reduce anything to a string of bits has resulted in a torrent of images that are simply tiring to keep up with at best and completely desensitizing at worse.

    Even more problematic is that everything is now so completely decontextualized. The cool mid-century detergent ad is presented no differently than a Matthew Brady photograph, which is no different than a 14th c Book of Hours, which is no different than a Sumerian clay tablet. They are now just all images – cool, or beautiful, or interesting – but presented as nothing more than that. It’s now just porn. Consume it and move on to the next cool, or beautiful, or interesting image. Or even better, lots of them.

    The thing is, however, the Brady photograph or the Book of Hours or the Sumerian clay tablet, even that 1955 Tide ad all have a history – a reason for being. It’s this history – the context – that makes the thing interesting. Would it kill your average Tumblr owner to do even
    5 min of research on an image to find this reason for being? Sadly, the answer is that yes, apparently it would.

    Going into a museum and being told ideas about the use and origin of something is putting the thing into context. Another thing museums do is display only considered parts of their collections. That is curation and it’s exactly what is missing from most of the internet.

  3. dave says:

    It is the second by second mini dopamine hit of the ‘new’.

    This is delivered exclusively through the eyes, as opposed to channelling first through the brain into meaning of some kind.

    In a way it is a flaw in the system of knowledge that social media has exploited – not the internet itself, as I think things were more contextualised a few years ago. It is going to be very hard to break our brains from this systems of brain rot in years to come. It takes genuine strength – dopamine is a strong mistress and she demands feeding.

  4. londonlee says:

    I want to ‘Like’ this but I know I’m just adding to the flood of “cool” links out there. I’ve given up trying to keep up with it all.

  5. You pose some fascinating questions, especially in the context of a site devoted to ‘things’. I recently had a similar discussion ( about the impact of technologies like Pinterest. Like you I find these developments disturbing, but I also find them surprisingly exhilarating. It is as if Marcel Duchamp and Walter Benjamin’s arcane explorations of ‘original’ and ‘reproduction’, ‘art’ and ‘non-art’ have finally become mainstream and mass-market.

    You points about the consumption of ‘content’ also reminds me of André Malraux’s 1947 Musée Imaginaire, the collection of images of art arranged intuitively, formally and according to ‘taste’ – a serious endeavour but nevertheless strikingly similar to the virtual collecting enabled by Pinterest etc.

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  7. timd says:

    ‘Le Musee Imaginaire De La Sculpture Mondiale’ is one of my favourite books
    It has some biases but is a great source

    I don’t have a strong view on internet collections – so here’s a tangential comment stemming from a recent visit to the British Museum.

    How I view a museum depends so much on the particular exhibition, how the objects are displayed, and the number of visits you make to a particular room in a museum.
    The Japanese room at the British museum is well curated, the artifacts on display change regularly, consequently I drop in to the BM regularly to see what’s new in room 92.
    On the other hand room 24 – Living and Dying, The Wellcome Trust Gallery – displays objects back-lit in gloomy light – brass isn’t affected by light – and many small objects are at 20 ft off the ground; text about the objects and random transparencies are given priority. I usually pass through this room quickly, which is a shame, I’m sure there is some interesting stuff on show, but I have real difficulty seeing them.

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  9. I sort of both agree and disagree with you on this. I love what you do, which is to go above the rebloggers – you actually do proper curation with themes and comments.

    That said I have a couple of tumblrs myself, and I use them mainly as a dumping ground for things I like, they are primarily for me, but just happen to be public. Have you thought much about how many people are using such platforms in this way? I think it might be quite a number. It’s a sort of public/private collecting. Public in that it’s out there for all to see, but private in that the motivations are internal.

    I do hope you continue your collecting. You have the knack for it :)

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  11. Ah ha! I was going to post the link above, but the internet mysteriously “pinged it back” for me.

    Also on this subject, though I don’t fully agree with him: Sam Jacob, “How can culture exist in a stream of Photoshopped incontinence?” (

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