Recently an article in Cotswold Life caught my eye. Adam Edwards was asking what five things you’d save from your home in a fire, assuming that children, pets and photographs had been saved.
Easy, I thought, I’d take the…the…hmm. After the children, pets and photographs? Nothing else would seem of that much importance. You start to think about what’s significant to you, don’t you?
So, assuming that this fire was terribly slow and that we had all the time we needed and could access every room, the children’s memory boxes are very significant, if financially valueless. I could take them if they aren’t too much in the photo category; they are a collection of bits and pieces from their lives – artwork, baby shoes, clothes, hospital bracelets, cards – the little important things I treasure from the time when they were small (and cute, but that’s another story). So they could count as one.
Next, I thought, my Victorian tables? We have a lovely breakfast table and a pretty dressing table. They’d come next. I’ve worked hard to do them up and make them just so and I love their aesthetically pleasing shapes and lines. Can they be a job lot and count as one?
Then I’d take the African artefacts that we’ve collected – can I squeeze them in as one? Some were inherited from my grandfather when he was out in Colonial Africa; others are ours; rugs, bowls, mirrors, art from the places we’ve visited. Am I cheating badly if I say that’s one?
Next thing; my jewellery collection. It’s not much, just pieces I’ve been given or bought that have special significance to me. Nobody else would make much of it but each piece is important to me and I love it as a collection too (which is why it keeps quietly growing).
One more. Tricky, but I think it would have to be my rock, fossil and mineral collection. I’ve been adding to this for over 20 years and it comprises finds from my Grandfather’s garden, finds from our various gardens and items I’ve bought and been given.; again, nothing spectacular but important to me.
And then it dawned on me: they are all either collections or they are old, or they are collections of old stuff. I couldn’t separate them and just take one item from each, for as Aristotle said ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Is this just because I love collections and collecting? Or is it because a single item might have little value but when in a collection, it becomes so much more when connected to other items? Even the children’s memory boxes (just junk to other people) are, unwittingly, a carefully curated collection of items which provoke memories of ideas, moods, times, places and people.
It appears that I also practice what I preach – the art of collecting, sorting and caring for collected items – and even though I don’t think of myself as a collector (surely that’s best left to the Gettys, Rothschilds and stamp collectors?) I clearly am. I’ve had various collections in my lifetime – lists of the charts in the 80s, candles, shells, books, shoes and handbags – none of them exceptional to anyone else but important to me because I collected them. That’s the nature of collecting, and it’s important because we can define ourselves through it and create memories through it. Come on then, what five things would you take?
I asked my husband what his employer’s company does about its history. ‘It’s all in an archive, it’s not on display’. I asked why not, and he said that the company was very forward facing and had designed all its branches and head office to all look identically modern, with the same branding, the same carpets, curtains, paint – even the prints had all been selected to be identical across the nation, so that when customers walked into any branch they felt recognition; it was the same as the one they usually used.
I know that when I walk into one of the branches I feel recognition. I recognise that I could be in any part of the country – it’s faceless; it’s soulless; it’s a cultural and historical desert – and for me, somebody with a historical background, that’s a shame. By being identical they are without identity, which is a pity as that company has traded since 1840s – that’s 175 years of people, products, innovation, change, which is all hidden under the bland face of modernity.
I know I’d perceive that company as more interesting, more engaging, more trustworthy, if I could see its origins, see the work that’s gone into it, see how politics and world events have changed its aims and outlook, or even just see a painting or lithograph of some of the leaders who’ve gone before. But that’s not modern. Modern seems to be about forgetting history, smoothing over everything into one-size-fits-all blandness. I don’t know that this helps anybody, companies least of all.
By displaying the origins of a company, the company is saying that it has a history to be proud of. It boasts longevity and staying power. It shows that it can weather storms, that its leadership has worked well for decades – centuries possibly – and that it will go on working. Thoughtfully chosen items bring a little of this history to customers and clients and show the human, unidentical side of a business and this is what those customers and clients respond to – for we are all human and we are not identical.