Monday, April 26, 2010

The 20th Century — It's history

It's not surprising that younger people collect things that are familiar to them, be it the latest rare and never-worn "kicks," shabby-chic lamps, Fiestaware from the 1960s, or vintage Nintendo games sold at high prices on E-bay. In high-style collecting this means that streamlined Art Deco or clean lined Modernist furniture are more popular with collectors in their 20s to 40s than are the Chippendale designs or 18th century Chinese ceramics collected by their parents. While trends in collecting are always changing, the idea that young people are collecting things nearer in date to themselves and more familiar to their own experience speaks to the work we need to do in museums and in community preservation.

It is sometimes said that art and architecture are rarely valued in their own time, and that 50 to 75 years must elapse before the merits can be recognized. In the early 1900s colonial era buildings were removed without pause as cities grew. Until quite recently, Victorian city halls and churches were viewed as fussy and overdecorated, and were unappreciated. Across communities today Mid-Century Modern homes—ranches, split-levels, prefabricated designs — are often maligned and frequently at risk of demolition. Public buildings in the International Style or Brutalist works in concrete are seen as ugly, unfriendly and unworthy of preservation. Communities are working today to preserve their 19th century buildings, but have no hesitation in allowing 1940s or 1960s buildings to be demolished without pause.

Just as today's young people form collections that represent their own experience, the collective experience of our communities is documented by the places and things we have known in our own time — whether beloved or hated today or currently ignored. At Historic New England, where we have added a flower-decorated orange crock pot and a George Foreman grill to our collection, such acquisitions often draw either chuckles or criticism. How can those represent history? we are asked. Why would you want to save that?

Americans are great storytellers who generally value their personal experiences and community and national accomplishments. Such stories include the everyday and the typical as well as the unique and extraordinary. In our community preservation work, in our museum collections, and in our personal saving of the stories of our families and our lives, we need to recognize that history begins one minute ago, and we need to work to ensure that a complete record of our own time survives so that the future can understand the experiences of today. The 20th century is entirely history. Its buildings and artifacts and images need to be preserved and collected now, as part of the continuum of history that enriches American lives.

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