A hard, but smooth, object. A natural form, made of wood. Almost spherical, with segments billowing out from its centre like an orange. Striated grooves running from top to bottom. Never cold, it carries energy and the potential for new growth. Small enough to be carried in the closed palm of a child’s hand. I’m describing the hazelnut token in the collection of the Foundling Museum, London. Set up in 2004, the Museum documents the work and patronage of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in 1739 to look after the many young children who were left without parental care in eighteenth-century England. Each of the Museum’s collection of tokens was intended as a keepsake and reminder of love, given from parent to child as they left their child at the Hospital, hoping this painful separation would bring their child a better life.
On close inspection, we can see that the hazelnut token has been carefully pierced to allow a string to be threaded through it, creating a necklace or plaything. In his book Mythologies, published in 1957, French theorist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) included an essay on ‘Toys’, in which he described wood as ‘a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor. Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand...Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time.’ Whether the humble offering in the
The hazelnut token also embodies one of the deepest aspects of collecting itself; the infinite potential we all have to imbue any object with meaning through our intention, attention and dedication. Many collections consist entirely or partly of gifts, for this very reason. One Summer’s day, years ago when I was struck with the blues, my mother gave me a small bag of stones she had collected from her travels over the years. They were invested with more love and comfort than any grander gesture would have been.
Over the years and decades, a collecting practice can offer a way to mark time in a deeply personal way. A collector of coloured glass, for example, walking along a stony beach on a Winter’s day, would remember the walk with more clarity if, as they ambled, they suddenly notice a fragment of an old bottle, washed up on the shore, grass-green and sea-polished. This little remnant would of course carry its own story – of the drunken fisherman or midnight reveller who drank from the bottle, but for the discoverer looking at it and holding it years later, it’ll conjure a moment from her own story - the enlivening feeling of the shock of the wind on her face, the immediate briny scent of the cold sea.
Collecting is about remembering.
And, it also encourages us to gather and compare, to notice and appreciate details and how the specific craft and technique with which an object is made will distinguish it from another that’s very similar.
American artist Seth Siegelaub (1941- 2013) began amassing historic textiles in the early 1980s, continuing for over three decades. He built a collection of hundreds of materials, including fragments of fifth-century Coptic dress, late medieval Asian and Islamic textiles, Renaissance European silks, and Ceremonial indigo-dyed robes from Cameroon in the mid-twentieth century. Textiles that were, at the time of their making, made for functional and decorative purposes, are now part of a vast and precious archive that describes not just the modulation of aesthetics and skilful technique across nations and times, but a social history of craft, decoration, dress, display, and mechanisation.
Siegelaub’s textiles are also emotionally-resonant, signalling the human need for protection and comfort, our inclination to beauty, and the way we use aesthetics to express power or elevate ceremony. Each textile in the collection carries the work of the hand, as well as the patina of time and the imperfections it brings.
But each imperfection has its own story, and is part of the life of an object. Collections, when cherished and tended to, have manifold stories to tell, about ourselves, each other, and about times long past.
Lucy Kumara Moore is a writer, art director, consultant and director of Claire de Rouen bookshop in East London @lucykumaramoore
Photographer Mariell Lindhansen.
With thanks to
Veronica Ditting @studioveronicaditting
Laima Leyton @laimaleyton
Paula Gerbase @paulagerbase