Curating Our Lives

            Jay Leno with his 1906 Stanley Steamer

We have our orderly collections, sometimes in real space, and sometimes captured in pixels or digital files. All give us ways to display what we want others to know about us.

Several years ago I wrote a essay wondering if we were done collecting.  At that time it was easy to notice that online music and “the cloud” had replaced music collections that used to line our walls.  The question was then answered in the affirmative, but I’m having second thoughts.  The impulse to convert our passions into materials that elaborate our lives seems deeper than I knew.  Most of us are active curators.  We just don’t think of ourselves with a word used to denote a person who decides what should hang on a gallery’s white walls.  And yet we have our orderly collections, sometimes in real space, and sometimes captured in pixels or digital files.  Collecting has its own internal rewards.  But I’m impressed with how many of us want to show off our passions to others.

This is obvious to any user of Facebook, Instagram or other forms of social media.  Facebook dramatically displays images of ourselves and the things and images we will allow to stand in for us. Selfies in particular can become galleries presenting the self-conscious self. We also use social media to relay pieces of the culture that we want others to like as much as we do. Most of the time a post includes a moment when we at least ask ourselves the central curatorial question: Is this post worth my association with it?

Older forms of personal curating continue as well.  Model railroaders curate their collections with the passion of medievalists working at the Met.  Guitarists rarely have just one instrument; most acquisitions represent a new point on their own learning curve. A lot of of us can’t resist a rare find carefully brought home to gather dust next to others like it. Even a few of us have tattoos forever memorializing moments when exuberance exceeded caution.

You probably live near a town known for its antique emporiums, used book stores and flea markets.  All are ready to sell everything from art-deco ashtrays to old lobby posters promoting films. Those stores are a reminder that while we may be done hunting for the basics of life, we are still eagerly gathering.


Alas, after the original curator of a collection leaves the scene, our collections may end up packed away in the attics of our still puzzled heirs.


Collecting turns out to be an acceptable way to have too much stuff.  Jay Leno has over a hundred rare cars. Retired newsman Jim Lehrer collects old buses. One of my grandmothers had a prominent display of miniature spoons with the names of such exotic places as Salt Lake City and Tulsa.

But collecting can also have a social function of representing something we hold close to our core identity. The stuff that stays around is emblematic of an individual’s enthusiasms: an expression of a personal aesthetic that still has meaning.

And so we reach the communication angle. In some way a collection on display stakes a claim about who we are. It marks crucial antecedents. We use things to be proxies of our unique affinities and aspirations.  I could bore you with the reason a large model Rio Grande Railroad boxcar is my own Renoir.  But it’s enough to note that it sits on a shelf in a ‘man cave,’ ready to be the trigger for a story that is almost never requested.

Alas, like meaning, collections are not easily transferable.  After the original curator of any collection leaves the scene, those carefully chosen pieces may end up packed away in the attics of our still puzzled heirs.