Collection, Display, Preservation

A Living Library

2021 - ongoing project
on view at museum
Contributors: Chanté Davis, Pam Otal, Felipe Sanchez, Will Bodwin, Tiffany Jin, Aaron Ambroso, Keith E. McNeal, & Sunrise Movement

object photographs by Skyler Smith

John Doe

Aug 17

Throughout their history, museums have been deeply tied to Western notions of conservation and permanence. “Every specimen is a permanent fact,” wrote Henry Osborne in his 1922 Annual Report to the Trustees, AMNH. According to Osborn, books and human works are fleeting, but the facts of Nature are immutable.

What motivates collection? What motivates preservation?

What is the relationship between an object and its context? The idea that objects ‘represent’ a larger whole - whether that is a culture, idea, or history - often conceals the historical relations of power that allowed for its acquisition.

Radically different versions of preservation are practiced elsewhere. The Zuni people of the southwestern United States carve wooden war gods, which are placed on the top of mesas and left to slowly return to the earth. Tibetan sand mandalas are painstakingly created by monks and then ritually destroyed.

Item from Pam Otal, an organizer with Sunrise Movement, Houston. They wrote of the candle “A brand new candle my family used for light during Winter Storm Uri.”
A fossilized oyster, brought by Will Godwin, Sam Houston State University Collections. “Brought a gift to Aaron A. Cretaceous oyster Exogyra ponderosa. From Texas: Lamar Co Highway 19 x N. Sulphur RW. Approximately 100 Million years old.”
A small black velvet purse with a sequin red rose, brought by Chanté Davis. Chanté wrote: “This purse has survived Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. The rose emblem on the front signifies the growth under chaotic circumstances.”
A comic written and illustrated by Felipe Sanchez, an organizer with Sunrise Houston. Felipe writes, “There are studies that show how microplastics are disrupting bodily functions in humans and animals. I made a comic to make the topic more approachable and help people come to terms with the reality we live in”
Brought by Tiffany Jin. She writes: “Burst pipes removed after winter storm Uri.”
Brought by Aaron Ambroso, a small piece of white asbestos. “This is a piece of asbestos (white) in chrysotile form. Asbestos was once considered a miracle material - it is incredibly strong, but flexible. It’s fire resistant, and a great insulator; it was used to make blankets and insulate international shipping containers. The discovery that asbestos causes a form of cancer, mesothelioma, was an unintended consequence of industrial production. Downplayed and fought by companies for years, asbestos is now highly regulated but not completely banned.”
Item from Isaac Phillips." The Best of Mississippi John Hurt. Vinyl damaged during Hurricane Gustav in Baton Rouge, LA. Part of collection of southern folk/rock/blues albums damaged by flooding in a home during the storm."
Left: Living Library, November 2021. Right: close up of text pinned to library about alternative versions of preservation., photos by Ethan Pham.
Shelf view of Living Library, November 2021. Photo by Ethan Pham

Back in April, we hosted a Living Library Exchange Day with Sunrise Movement, Houston. We invited Hub members to bring a personal object related to climate change and environmental justice to leave with the museum, participants pictured below.

This is an ongoing project, and we continue to accept and document submissions. The project is built around an understanding that objects can continue to have a life outside of the museum walls. For example, air monitors actively used by Air Alliance Houston are on display and in limited use for only a short duration at the museum. The devices will then be returned to the organization and their monitoring network.