Blogs > Cliopatria > In a Thousand Years, Even You May Be Worth Something

Feb 16, 2004 11:16 pm

In a Thousand Years, Even You May Be Worth Something

To quote Indiana Jones' adversary Belloq when he thinks he has entombed his enemy for good.

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine has a short bit by Randy Cohen in his column"The Ethicist" which is even less well-considered than his usual. In it, Cohen says that someone owning a historically significant baseball has no obligation to regard it as a historically significant. Cohen says, only a few things, such as"the personal library of Abraham Lincoln" or"homely objects" at Ellis Island, carry enough historical significance to exert a real ethical obligation on the individual who happened to be in possession of them.

While I agree that the owner of the putative baseball has no ethical obligation to donate it rather than sell it, I was surprised to see Cohen say that"Fonzie's jacket" and"Archie Bunker's chair" at the Smithsonian tell us nothing of value, and are unimportant and unilluminating. This is just plain dumb. Both of them tell us about more than just a TV show, but also about a historical moment in which a TV show was watched, and about a material culture that the TV show was attempting to represent.

Any artifact can be telling or interesting to a historian, as James Deetz' In Small Things Forgotten observed some time ago. To my mind, EBay has been one of the most astonishing revolutions in the study of 20th Century American material culture ever, because it has made it possible to browse (and if one has sufficient cash, acquire) a huge national attic of ephemera and minutuae that is deeply important, useful and revealing. Cohen has an incredibly crude, formal sense of the artifactual difference between value and irrelevance.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 2/20/2004

My father runs a rare bookstore called the Antiquarian in Scottsdale. I remember how puzzled I was when he first told me that you have to get back at least as far as the 1600s before age alone gave value to a book.

However, over time I have learned that neither intelligence nor fame is a good guide to a book's value either. Condition, being a first edition, subject matter (e.g. doctors love old medical books and pay good money for them), autographs, and a good story that goes with That Very Book all come into play.

Of course this is not necessarily how the Smithsonian or another museum should value things. The book world is a weird merging of subculture and raw capitalism. Still, if packing them in is going to be a measure of success, then Archie's chair serves a purpose, perhaps even a historical one.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/17/2004

This is a _big_ problem for museum curators and those who accession documents in archives. They must claim the right to make decisions about what not to keep. But it is very difficult to anticipate what will be of value. A casual memo or a bill from the cleaners could turn out to be a key piece of evidence placing a key figure at a place and time that we wouldn't have any other way of knowing.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/17/2004

Actually, I would tend to agree (and when I'm in agreement with Randy Cohen, I start to worry; he's a terrible ethicist) that recent Smithsonian acquisitions in the realm of TV props are, in fact, nearly devoid of historical value. They are still basically props, eye-catching celebrity objects who may invite viewers to think more deeply about social and cultural contexts or who may just display the spread of the cult of celebrity to the institutions of the Muses.

And it's highly unlikely that a particular baseball has anything particular to tell us, absent a fairly rich contextual narrative. What if the baseball came through Ellis Island, though?

But, and this is the big one, there are questions that have not been asked of material culture. That's where the eBay Archives become interesting. Questions about the longevity of material culture, the creation of fads and long-term interest groups, the immensely gratifying interest in antiques not as investments but as windows to our past lifestyles. Yes, that's interesting.

I'm not sure about the idea that owning something old, or even "historic" imposes an obligation on individuals. It'd be nice if people were concerned enough about historical integrity that they preserved important stuff. But most people don't really know what that means, and everyone has to clean out the attic sometime.