On Salt Shakers and Chinese Takeout Menus
Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/16 at 01:51 AM
A recent article at Smithsonian.com legitimates collectors and collecting, revealing how the most trivial of objects takes on new meaning and worth when placed in a “collection” and a “museum.” This time, the collection is 80,000 salt and pepper shakers, “Would You Like Some Salt and Pepper? How About 80,000 Shakers’ Worth?,” spread across two “museums.”
As Baudrillard pointed out in his The System of Objects, “our everyday objects are in fact objects of a passion—the passion for private property, emotional investment in which is every bit as intense as investment in the ‘human’ passions. Indeed, the everyday passion for private property is often stronger than all others …. Apart from the uses to which we put them at any particular moment, objects in this sense have another aspect which is intimately bound up with the subject: no longer simply material bodies offering a certain resistance, they become mental precincts over which I hold sway, they become things of which I am the meaning, they become my property and my passion.” Through possessing these objects, the subject abstracts them from their quotidian function. Objects begin to refer only to other objects in a collection. Together, these objects “make up the system through which the subject strives to construct a world, a private totality.” Collectors, the “subject” in Baudrillard’s parlance, strive to complete some imagined series of objects that they can organize according to the rules they deem appropriate. The collector becomes the master of a particular domain represented by the objects.
This collection of salt and pepper shakers and the family that controls them, access to them, their arrangement, and their meaning, illustrate Baudrillard’s point. They have become masters of an ever growing series of objects, abstracted from their daily function. These objects are now arranged such that they refer to each other and take their meaning from their place in that series:
“It’s almost impossible to categorize them,” the younger Andrea [Ludden—daughter of the collector] said, “because you can work by style, age, subject matter, color, etc., but we try and do it to combine all these elements at the same time. There are literally hundreds of themes, and in those themes there will be many colors, but Mom has a way of laying the displays out that are very highly planned, so that the colors within a theme are displayed together. For example,” she continues, “all the greens, yellows and reds of the vegetables are arranged in vertical rows, so you get bright color bands, but all the shakers are on the same theme. It’s a lot more complicated than it sounds because there are so many of them.
A suggestive comparison might be made between the Ludden’s collection of salt and pepper shakers and Harley Spiller’s collection of Chinese takeout menus and other detritus from daily life. See his collections at his website: Inspector Collector. Spiller’s collection did not receive the imprimatur of a Smithsonian article. Instead, one NPR report referred to his actions as hoarding (see The World’s Biggest Menu Collection?) and a later story implied that he had an obsession (see Collecting More Than an Obsession for New Yorker). The Luddens’ collection seems no better or worse than Spiller’s. In both cases, a person’s passion for everyday objects transforms them by separating them from their typical function and inserting them into an ever-growing series of similar objects. The objects are made similar by the collector’s having arranged them in a way that makes clear the relationships, the similarities, that the collector deems relevant. Both the Luddens and Spiller are establishing their domains of expertise and authority. Collecting, displaying, and controlling access to objects, even otherwise worthless objects, renders those objects valuable and is an exercise of authority (see also the recent post On Collectors and Collecting).
Spiller’s collection of spoons really isn’t all that different from the Luddens’ collection of salt and pepper shakers, the article in the Smithsonian notwithstanding.