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Protecting Our Heritage Against Commodification

December 29, 2010

What value is our national heritage? When is it ok to take historical items and sell them off, essentially, commoditizing them? What is our personal responsibility to protect such items from auction and thus protect our heritage? Seems these days everything is up for sale. And respect for our country, for its history and heritage, has waned in certain areas. It is a very disturbing trend. Typically public and academic libraries have been the repositories for historical ephemera, important documents, private and public papers, journals, diaries, and books. I have always wanted to visit certain libraries to view letters by Virginia Woolf or Henry David Thoreau. Or perhaps see Audubon’s, Birds of America. Lucky for us, the Smithsonian has an original copy of the worlds most expensive book. An original copy of John Audubon’s, Birds of America, recently sold for $11.5 million to a private party. According to the WSJ who wrote an extensive article on the book….”Currently, only 11 of the roughly 200 original “Birds of America” sets are in private hands. About 100 belong to institutions. The rest have been destroyed, lost, or broken up and sold as individual prints.”

To be sure, private collectors have for eons spent money on things they covet – for pride of ownership, love of beauty, or both. The question becomes when an item has value that goes beyond its intrinsic value or as an object of art, and reflects a whole country and its history – should we draw the line at putting these items up for sale? Is a letter to Lincoln belong to the nation, or relegated as a personal asset? How about our flag?

That was what one woman asked as director of a small library in Little Falls, NY, when two such items were auctioned off.

Small Town, Big Word, Major Issue

A 13-star flag and an invitation to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball should never have been put up for auction, argued the director, Marietta Phillips. And she was also bothered, she said, that trustees sometimes took artifacts home, for good reason, perhaps, but without anyone’s bothering to note it on her sign-out sheet at the circulation desk.

“You can’t get your history back,” she said. “People don’t realize: once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

“Apparently, the board of trustees decided these items were not historically significant to the area and voted to have them sold at auction,” she wrote. “I have resigned from my position and accept the responsibility for the significant loss of historical material.”

Deaccessioning is the kind of word that makes eyes glaze over and can seem to be the preserve of dusty intellectuals and large museums. But it’s just a fancy name for the sale or giving away of art and artifacts by museums and other cultural organizations, and the dust-up here in this city of about 5,000 demonstrates that such debates occur in all kinds of places, big and small, where people feel protective about materials in their care.

I urge you to read the rest of the story for it is an important one. The commodification of culture is something we need to examine as to its real cost to our heritage, for as Ms Phillips said, once an item is gone, it’s gone. There has been numerous stories this year about the selling off of art-assets at museums and libraries due to the economic downturn. This is precisely the time we should be holding onto these most valuable of items for we need them to remind us of who we are as a nation, united in our cause and our Constitution. Our arts & letters are not just for us, or for one person, they are for all of us, for our children, and for future generations to enjoy and inspire anew that which is America.

Smithsonian: http://smithsonianlibraries.si.edu/smithsonianlibraries/2010/12/the-worlds-most-expensive-book-2010.html

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