Taken individually, none of the objects at the Mmuseum in Chinatown would be of much significance. Set up in an defunct elevator shaft, the museum’s tiny shelves are lined with an odd collection of everyday artifacts including toothpaste bottles from around the world, moss specimens, peep show coins and an assortment of plastic spoons.
As singular items, these objects might possess little cultural value. Viewed together however, the richness, complexity, and commonalities of the human experience come into sharp focus. Much like the idiosyncratic and unorthodox libraries of this week’s readings, this carefully curated exhibition reminds visitors that memory and knowledge are not simply embodied in the individual objects but also the spaces and places we create for them.
The “fluidity and vivacity” of Aby Warburg library highlights the ways in which he believed, “No cultural object or symbol system could be understood without a careful study of it’s appearance and context.” As Barbara Maria Stafford notes in her piece, “Reconceiving the Warburg LIbrary as a Working Museum of the Mind,” what made this library in particular so unique was its, “Spatialization of scholarship in unusual intersective objects.” Warburg arranged his collection such a way that the these associative links generated knowledge in their own right, thereby, “reinforcing the content of the materials in his collection.” In this way, I believe the Mmuseum also challenges us to think about how our individual objects might be aggregated, recombined, and reconfigured in order to offer a collective narrative on what it means to experience life. The exhibition subtly asks its viewers– What would it look like if your memories and artifacts were on display here? What would we learn about you? What would we learn about us?
The concept of library as memory and memory as “organized matter” is a seductive one for Warburg but as Rick Prelinger points out, “We absolutely cannot save everything. And we shouldn’t. Loss is formative. Absence is necessary to truly understand presence.” There is something about knowing that the objects in the Mmuseum will not survive (perhaps because the exhibition has been built in an old and abandoned elevator shaft) which makes them feel even more special. They remind us of the temporality of modernity. In reading these pieces I couldn’t help but wonder how the sense of false permanence of the internet changes our relationships with libraries and other physical repositories of knowledge. If memory is knowledge, and knowledge is desire for Warburg, how can our libraries invoke and evoke these feeling in new ways? I find it fascinating to think about the way content shapes form, and how this could lead to libraries that look vastly different than what we have today.