The Usefulness of Things

I don’t suggest that this is the most professional way to experience museum collections, but I love getting lost in collections storage spaces.  Although I am aware of various structural ways that collections are divided and assessed, I think breaking down those divisions can produce new realizations. I interact with libraries in a very similar way.  I walk through unguided by intent, drawn to new and unusual things. 

The best part of this experience is that I allow myself the freedom to make conjectural associations between seemingly unrelated artifacts.  Initially convinced that I was the first to make such connections, I am happily amazed at how often I am proven wrong.  Guess what? That spoon on one shelf (covered in acid-free glassine) actually has a relationship with the chair ten rows down, third shelf up.

It was during one of these moments of unexpected connection that I began seeing artifacts as letters in an alphabet.  They are fragments of a language that, when combined in certain ways, can be the difference between the poetry of Emily Dickenson and e .e. cummings, and the nuances of the subversive lyrics of Cole Porter and Chicago rapper Noname.

I don’t come to this realization from a deeply intellectual background.  Reading was difficult for me.  Because I am dyslexic, much of my knowledge comes from experience and physically engaging in situations.  Rarely can I engage in a situation without understanding the basic parts and behaviors.  I find it odd that others consider me theoretically minded and without practicality, when quite the opposite is true.  Anyone who has worked with me knows that I arrive at theory and strategy by way of tactile engagement and experience.

I think that is why I so love artifacts.  As physical things, I can get to the narratives through the “thingness of the thing.” My interest in collections, in addition to long-term stewardship of their physical condition, is centered on how those things can illuminate stories, make connections, and span generations, class, economics, race, and gender. 

The bigger questions I have now, relate to how the “alphabet” of collections and artifacts can be combined in the digital text of social media. I think of artifacts as isolated letters.  In themselves they are part of a larger alphabet; they contain histories and evolution for their use.  Beyond that, they hold potential–vast potential to express anything. I think this potential can be realized by creatively combining four concepts:

  1. Narrative
  2. Methodology of communication
  3. Connections to contemporary life
  4. Intangible histories

NARRATIVE: The best collaborative projects I have worked on are ones in which the curator of collections/artifacts reaches into the present day, spans time, and engages inclusive voices.  These sorts of narrative efforts work best when the nostalgia of the artifact conceptually rises above its function, and through intent, illuminates the world around us. It is not just the facts and function of the artifact, but the poetry of its inclusion within the larger time span and world.

METHODOLOGY: Given new digital forms of communication, how we showcase an artifact can have much to do with how compellingly the ideas surrounding it are publicly perceived.  In addition, there are platforms that allow still images with text, video, and both.  My experience suggests that elevating the artifact above its physical-ness and using it as a platform to tell an entirely additional layer of narrative can greatly engage our potential audiences.  In many ways it can be similar to the idea of “social stories” used in autism spectrum educational projects.  The intent of the “social story,” beyond the particular site or experience, is to reduce anxiety and contain expectations. The use of digital platforms can enhance collections, not just exhibit them online.

CONNECTIONS: An artifact is valuable beyond itself inasmuch as we allow it to speak to issues wider than its particular era, use, and function.  A meaningful exercise is to take headline news and force oneself to make connections to it through artifacts and narratives found in a collection. This process may feel a bit forced at first, but after participants get used to the concept, the connections are authentic, effortless, and material.

INTANGIBLE: Often when thinking about collections and artifacts, I remained in the world of the physical.  It was hard for me to think about the behaviors that defined a particular object.  As I mature in my understanding of curatorial practice, however, I am now drawn more into the making of the thing, or the use of the thing, or the behaviors that were assisted by the thing.  The intangible becomes the poetry of collections.  

LatimerNOW Initiative and Light on Sound Project

As Executive Director of the Historic House Trust of New York City, one project that I learned a great deal from was the Lewis H. Latimer House’s LatimerNOW Initiative and the “Light On Sound” (2015) Project.  Lewis Latimer (1848-1928) was an African American inventor, an electrical pioneer, and a son of fugitive enslaved individuals.  The family home in Flushing, Queens, NYC, was turned into a house museum and became one of twenty-three historic sites run by the Historic House Trust of New York City. 


(L to R) Olivia Cothren, LatimerNOW Initiative Manager, Historic House Trust of New York City; Monica Montgomery, Site Director, Lewis H. Latimer House; Ran Yan, Site Director, Lewis H. Latimer House; Caroline Drabik, “Light On Sound” Project Manager and Director of Curatorial Affairs, Historic House Trust of New York City

The goal of the innovative LatimerNOW Initiative (funded by the New York Community Trust, project managed by Olivia Cothren, and site-directed by Monica Montgomery & Ran Yan) was to learn from Lewis Latimer’s life and highlight the multi-themed narrative to engage the wider Flushing community.  In addition to being an extremely important site dedicated to sharing the African American inventor’s experience, the house resides within an area that is quite diverse, including Chinese, Korean, Native American, and other various native and immigrant populations.  Flushing, Queens is considered the most diverse location in the world relative to languages spoken. 

In response to the diversity of Flushing, the LatimerNOW team chose the concept of “communication” as the theme to use in crossing language and cultural barriers. It was determined that a combination of collection items would be the catalyst for a community-wide engagement project.  The collection items chosen to address the idea of “communication” were a series of poems and scientific publications that Latimer wrote.  As objects, they were two-dimensional documents with a mixture of handwritten and typed compositions.  The “Light on Sound” Project grew out of this humble stack of papers in the Latimer Collection.  The project was created by a collaborative team lead by Caroline Drabik, Historic House Trust of New York City, Director of Curatorial Affairs, artists Jessica Houston & Mya Pindyck, and myself.  In the artists’ statement it outlines:

“(Light on Sound) is an interactive poetry project and installation that engages The Historical Latimer House and the Flushing neighborhood with the voices of community members reading poems. The work commemorates Lewis H. Latimer, African American inventor of the filament for Edison’s lightbulb, and poet. Poems can be turned on through light and called up with a cell phone. The poems that fill the Latimer House and extend into the community were generated, recited, and shared by the people of Flushing in three languages.”

Through this project, a collection item expanded beyond its simple physicality and engaged a city-wide, contemporary audience with current dialogue.  Topics included race, social justice, gender, relationships, and politics. The project grew to include signage throughout the community, cell phone poetry uploads, on-site poetry workshops, and recordings resulting in several on-site poetry slams.

One of the most teachable moments from this project was seeing how a series of two-dimensional, physical collection objects could be the catalysts for a large, interactive, engaging, city-wide project.  The collection items helped to document and define the intangible emotive connections between Lewis H. Latimer’s poetry and the surrounding community.  The collection was not an end in itself, but by creating new ways to communicate its value and meaning,  we were able to tell a story beyond the simple factual details of the artifacts themselves.

I also think that the more we as museum professionals can collaborate, bring in outside artists, such as the talented Jessica Houston & Mya Pindyck, to highlight a different way of seeing our collections, the greater impact these objects can have in our present lives.

I would love to hear what all of you are doing to expand the

usefulness of things?

*NOTE: Even though the project Light on Sound took place in 2015, much of the engagement was digitally sourced making it useful as a prototype in our COVID-19 era.

*Special thanks to: Olivia Cothren, Monica Montgomery Nyathi, Ran Yan, Jessica Houston, and Mya Pindyck.

June Lucas – editing

LatimerNOW Initiatove: https://historichousetrust.org/what-we-do/innovation/latimernow-2/

Light on Sound: https://www.jessicahouston.net/#/light-on-sound/

Caroline Drabik White Rose Curatorial Services: https://www.carolinedrabik.com/03-about

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