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2016-06-17 03:52:30   •   ID: 1392

The meaning and biographies of collected objects

Figure 1
These are Quina scrapers from the Type-site in the Charente coming from H. Martins personal collection.

The idea of objects having (auto-)biography which can be recounted was first formulated during the early 19th century.

Not only persons, but also objects have biographies, as they are integrated into interactions across time and space and were embedded and later removed from their original context. As objects gather biographies for themselves they also acquire symbolic value.

For example, an artifact found by Chauvet at La Micoque and later incorporated into my small collection has a high symbolic value for me. It tells me the story of early Prehistoric research in the Vezere Valley, and the scientific debates about the site during the last 120 years. It becomes not only an object with a biography but also becomes a part of my own biography and identity.

It has an "aura" in the sense of Walter Benjamin. His work “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” continues to inspire significant scholarly attention as a major work in the history of modern aesthetic and political criticism.

Aura is a sense of distance, no matter how close an object may be: it somehow seems more than what it is.

Aura refers to artificiality. Human work has been inscribed into the artifacts, even into crude Choppers and flakes of the early Oldowan, and even much more work was invested in highly sophisticated stone tools like the thin triangular Handaxes during the MTA, Solutrean points, late Scandinavian daggers or Predynastic knife, to name just a few.

Aura refers to the life of things. A handaxe at St Acheul found in intact stratigraphy, testified by the eminent John Evans and Joseph Prestwich on Wednesday 27 April 1859 and documented by the new medium of photography, remains “ the stone that shattered the time barriers” and has therefore a certain aura in Benjamins sense.

The aura of a handaxe from Bed II at Olduvai Gorge (1, 6 Mio yrs.) in northern Tanzania has multiple sources: It was found by L.S.B. Leakey, played a significant role in fixing an early age of the African Acheulian and helped to deconstruct Eurocentric views of very early Prehistoric times.

Anyhow, collected objects have lost their original context irrespectively if they are part of a private or public collection. This is a highly ambivalent and much debated process. When displayed in museums or enter collections, objects change their qualities. In his 1988 book „origins of the museum“, Krzysztof Pomian argued that an artifact that was taken out of from the practical and economic sphere becomes a “semiophore” with no practical use.

Such objects are brought into a new symbolic context and are charged with a different socio-cultural meaning. The collection and the exhibition of semiophores mediate between the visible and invisible world (the past, the future), making the invisible present through the arrangement of concrete tangible objects.

The invisible represented in museum objects is frequently that of past times, persons, or places, but can also be interpreted as a sacrifice for future generations.

Although Pomian helps us to understand the metaphoric symbolism around semiophores, I disagree with Pomian on two major points.

Firstly, semiophores are still part of an alternative economy (the collectors market, where more than 10000 EUR are payed for exceptional handaxes and late Neolithic daggers), and secondly do still have even a political or symbolic use also. The Schliemann’s findings from Troy were always charged with national pride and chauvinism and helped visitors of the collection to be charged also.

There are Museums, which satisfy both the interest of specialists and the large public. At the best, the artifacts displayed in these museums and their presentation allow a recontextualisation to a certain degree without destroying their aura.

The Musee National de Prehistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac and the Landesmuseum Sachsen-Anhalt in Halle are the best European examples for such a strategy.

A deterrent example of how the European stone-age should not be presented is the Neue Museum in Berlin, reopened after many years of renovation, some years ago.

Here you find a careless presentation of artifacts, both from collections of French material from the early 20th century (Hauser's looting operations in the Perigord) and the late Paleolithic / Mesolithic of the Brandenburg / Berlin area.

No contextualization, no critical catalogues, no debate about the provenience of prehistoric artifacts- the curators choice- hope for a change.