Shopping Centres, Objects, Consumption and Value

Recently I was spending the afternoon with a Polish woman and her son who I met back in June. We went to an activities for kids in the church she goes to, and then strolled through the park to get some lunch, talking all the while about Poland, Glasgow, moving to a new place, Polish traditions and such.

Walking through the shopping centre (great places to spend time in Glasgow, particularly when it’s raining and for people watching), I came across one of the Open Museums’ travelling exhibits for the first time, pictured below.

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I thought it was fascinating, unusual, and brilliant.

Working with a group of men from Barlinnie prison, the Open Museum produced this travelling exhibition with objects chosen by participants and responded to by them. Co-curated, this project acknowledges the power of objects to tell multiple different stories, based on the experiences, characteristics and ideas that the person handling the object brings to this interaction. Which I dig.

But the thing that has struck me in thinking about it since is the placement of a series of objects in a place which centres around the consumption of objects. This plastic covered case which features the voices of prisoners from Barlinnie who were involved in the making of the exhibition on wheels, held within it a series of objects of different ages and types, and had responses, stories and thoughts written below.

In walking past the case, you can stop and look at the objects inside, the thoughts of the men, and attach your own thoughts, feelings, memories, and stories to them. Located next to a Poundland, this process seems striking and somehow beautifully incongruous. In an article about the new Westfield in Bradford, a couple in the street are asked what they think about it. They reply that they acknowledge it will create more jobs, but in a place that is just continuing the cycle of consumption of things we don’t really need, which will then probably end up in one of the many charity shops in the city. This endless cycle seems rather futile, bleak and unimaginative as a source of employment.

Shopping centres centre around consuming objects, for ourselves and for others. Many of them such as this one and the two shopping centres/markets in Bradford are often filled with affordable places to buy things like Poundlands, Primarks, etc, catering for frankly the majority of the population who have been the most affected by deindustrialisation. I’m not sure about how consumption and class are connected particularly, because consumption is rife everywhere, if it’s not a Poundland it’s a Harvey Nichols. But I found this placement of this small, unassuming case in the middle of the ebb and flow of people sitting, eating, shopping, talking in this market really striking.

The way museums conceptualise, understand and use objects is really fascinating, and there’s so much there in terms of the agency of the object, how we imbue things with value, who is imbuing the object with value in the first place, and how it is displayed. What struck me was this quiet invitation to contemplate the power of objects to trigger feeling, memory and stories in a way that all the other houses of objects surrounding this wee case were not principally aiming to do. The engagement with the objects is very different, and perhaps given that some of the objects in the case had been bought or made years previously, there was an element of thinking about what we consume and why. How we give these things value, where the value is located – is it in the giving of the gift to a person? The using of a tool in a job at home? The eating of the crisps?

There’s something here about needs and wants I think. One of the objects in the case was a wooden tiger toy. The label written by one of the participants in the project reads: “this cute little tiger wood toy was hand-made. Perhaps it was created by a poor Indian child desperate to raise some money for their family.” This speculation made me think about the stuff we buy, the stuff we need and the expectations placed upon us to consume, ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and all of these pressures to purchase new things. The things we need to consume often get confused or melt into the things we want to consume, and something like this Open Museum travelling case placed somewhere like this has the potential to slowly begin to quietly facilitate the reframing of how we think about objects, value, and consumption. This obviously won’t happen anytime soon and there are so many layers to consumption that are much harder and knottier to think about in terms of freedoms and actually how much money people have, and the pressures of gift-giving to children, and at christmas, and what to do with your time when you’re not at work and I’m not going into all these things here but, there is the potential for these things to be approached just by having this case here. I’m not naive to think that many people won’t engage with it, and it does only tell the stories of these particular men and their interaction with the object, but in seeing something curated by ‘criminals’, it might encourage a breaking down about ideas of who is the ‘expert’ in these engagements with museum objects outside the museum space.

This small coming together of one type of interaction with objects in a space where there is a very different kind of interaction with objects was something I found really interesting, and has made me begin to think a little more about the role of objects, value and stories in my work, and the ways that these ideas are used in places like museums.

Anyway. I got a little side-tracked when I was re-reading something about gift exchange and objects in anthropological theories of value, which brought my mind here-! But my mind has other places to be now, so I’m off to see where it takes me next.

Happy Tuesday folks, hope the autumn weather isn’t getting you down x

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