Relics #3: The possessed.

He told himself he was too pampered, too spoilt by civilization, ever to inhabit nature again; and that made him sad in a not unpleasant bitter-sweet sort of way. After all, he was a Victorian. We could not expect him to see what we are only just beginning – and with so much more knowledge and lessons of existentialist philosophy at our disposal – to realize ourselves: that the desire to hold and the desire to enjoy are mutually destructive. His statement to himself should have been, “I possess this now, therefore I am happy; instead of what it so Victorianly was: “I cannot possess this forever, and therefore I am sad”.    The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Chapter 10, John Fowles (1969)

Carpe diem (or YOLO if you’re Rihanna) – a timeless mode of thought?

Arguably modern attitudes to historical artefacts remain Victorian; fragility, rarity and legacy count for much. Or is it just human nature to infer a state of sanctity?

Does protection prevent real enjoyment by limiting handling, transportation, wider inspection? A missed opportunity for closer contact with something that has experienced the past and is witnessing the present.

This is well-trodden ground, and something that is rightly being challenged, if only for the purpose of pushing more ingenious ways of “engagement”.

But what interests me is when this sanctity is divined? When does something pass into the realms of relicdom?

I pondered this recently with the death of my aunt (bastard cancer).

The inevitable divvying up of possessions followed, although to a lesser degree, my aunt having completed much of this task herself. The horror of accepting (jewels, coffee sets), I cannot accurately describe.

My mother has largely been the recipient of clothes; quite literally stepping into her big sister’s shoes.

The rest? “Charity shop, I s’pose”, shrugged my uncle. Then, “They don’t suit me”. Finally, “They’re just things”.

On a surface level possessions, artefacts, are not a person, so what do they matter?

They matter to living memory and future interpretation. Providing a link between events, conversations, encounters, whilst providing the scope for future persons to guess at these.

1967 book graffiti

1967 book graffiti

I am an acute mixture of these. Having lost my dad at a young age I can’t always be certain what is fact (my genuine memories) or fiction (what I have been told since). I’m not saying that these are mutually exclusive, but the uncertainty is infuriating.

Yet my response to objects is something apart. There is no doubt.

This is his sketch, unearthed, albeit from 1967 – I see him drawing, pen in hand.

The worn patch on the right-side arm of a chair – there, he’s resting his head in his right hand whilst watching telly.

For this reason, I value objects. I cherish them. Things that have meaning to just a few. But I don’t claim exclusivity. The potential for future speculation, wildly inaccurate guesses, thrills me.

We leave our mark, officially.

At a recent university workshop, ‘Whose Business is Heritage?’, the word “authenticity” reared its ugly head. I say this because of the reactions it drew from the panel of speakers – exasperation and weariness. It is one of those terms that has been batted back and forth between academics of late and is now thrown into conversations like a comfortable elephant in the room, or at least one whose presence is grudgingly accepted.

I’ll take a simplified view, that the desire for “authenticity” is made up by a myriad of motives (be it quality, monetary value, or nostalgia), and of course depends of each person. That aside, I’d like to bring forth the wonderful case of the Wedgwood pottery backstamp.

A grafter and firm believer in experiments (a good white glaze!), the first Josiah Wedgwood was dismayed to hear that his nephew had once confused a rival’s work for a piece of his own company’s pottery. To avoid such mistakes, and ever the astute business man, Jos devised the system of stamping the backs of products with his mark. A modern man, I wonder what he would have made of the collectors, centuries later, relying on these marks, a safe and sure sign of “authenticity”.

Courtesy of https://i1.wp.com/www.emmabiggsmosaic.net/00_images/03_work/00_made_in_england/02_made_in_england_detail.jpg

How this is crashed and muddled by the Made in England mosaic project for the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (pictured above). The project received pottery donations from members of the public, the backstamps of these were then used to create a mosaic to decorate the museum’s entrance. Minton with Burleigh with Aynsley with Spode. From the mud to the stars. Watch a short interview with creator Emma Biggs here.