The Problem With Value

Here are some brief statistics about the ‘meaningful pasts’ posts:

  • There were 11 female and 6 male respondents, for a total of 17
  • More than half of the respondents were in their 40s, yet the ages ranged from 10 years to late 60s
  • Respondents have different backgrounds and origins, but 40% work in the public service, and 47% live in Canada

Reading back through the answers, I was struck by the engagement everyone had with the questions (thank you to all the participants!). There is no doubt that the majority saw ‘the past’ in its broadest sense as both personal and collective. In thinking about objects that people treasure, there was a sense that personality came into the mix: some are more minimalist because they don’t like clutter or amassing boxes of stuff; others are what one person described as ‘pack-rats’. This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a colleague: the more one moves house, the less stuff one keeps, especially when the moves are transnational.

Nonetheless, I found that the common denominator for many of the answers is value.

As Post #7 mentions, there is a process of sorting and selecting which objects to keep and care for. This suggests that on a personal level, value is usually not considered in monetary terms, but linked to emotional attachment. Some are more apt at sorting and selecting and find this activity beneficial, akin to some sort of cleansing. Others might be more inclined to delay the decision-making process and instead gather objects on shelves or in boxes that go in storage, in attics and basements (not necessarily their own).

Keep it in the family

The personal items that were mentioned were quite representative across the respondents: photos, childhood toys, school yearbooks, books, pocket watches and other objects inherited from grandparents.

A number of respondents implied that having children changed their sorting and selecting practices. For parents, this means collecting the child’s childhood (e.g. keeping a lock from the first haircut) as well as objects from their own parents and lineage. In that sense, the presence of a new generation acknowledges one’s own mortality, and collecting the memory of loved ones is part of preserving the family’s presence for future generations.

Representations of the past in the present. Cabinet featured in the 'Talking with the Dead' exhibition

Representations of the past in the present. Cabinet featured in the ‘Talking with the Dead’ exhibition

I am involved in a project on Spiritualism in the Stoke-on-Trent, and the ongoing presence of the loved ones who have passed on is a recurring theme. When doing interviews in people’s homes, there were often pictures of relatives and close friends on display. Rather than a constant reminder of death, from a Spiritualist point of view this representation of being surrounded by loved ones through tangible and intangible memories of their practices and personalities evokes the continuity of life. In our exhibition at Gladstone Pottery Museum (running until 31 October), we wanted to reflect the ongoing presence of the past in everyday life and its persistence for the future of the Spiritualist movement.

Older pasts are already ‘selected’

Value at a larger scale is much more problematic. As a society with different and differing values, is it possible to sort and select by consensus? Post #16 seems to suggest that it is being done, and indeed many countries have heritage frameworks. In a city like Rome, my conversations with planners and archaeologists suggested that it was much easier to preserve and conserve than to select. Selecting means that there is a decision being made at a given time of whether to keep or discard an object. Imagine the burden of an archaeologist who would have recorded but destroyed a material fragment, just to be blamed years later for destroying that fragment as its value would have increased over time. Hence, the practice in Italy is basically to preserve everything. One architect had jokingly told me that he hoped his Tempo garage wouldn’t be part of some heritage artefact in 2000 years.

Tensions between people’s interests and roles also come into play. On being asked if there were some objects best forgotten, Post #10 said: “Absolutely not. As an historian, it is my opinion that all must be remembered.” And yet, the 10-year-old from Post #17 has a good point: does anyone want to preserve ancient underpants? Possibly. And that’s the difficulty, especially in places like Rome where for the casual observer, as well as those involved in the ‘business of the past’, everything seems to be worthy of preservation: there’s no need to sort and select because everything ‘ancient’ already has value.

The Roman Coliseum at night

The Roman Coliseum at night

Post #10 goes on to mention that the older the time of the object, the lesser we know about that time. Indeed. So is this why we automatically value older pasts? Baudrillard (1968) discusses this ‘immemorialization’ of older pasts. He concludes that the older the past, the more it is valued because it is linked with authenticity and a time we can’t personally recollect. Would the Roman Coliseum or the Acropolis in Athens ever be purposefully destroyed? I doubt it since these structures don’t only belong to the nations under which they are located, but to a wider, global population through their designation as World Heritage Sites. But this doesn’t protect them from any future conflict as we’ve recently witnessed in the Middle East…


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