This week I’m finding all kinds of historical lists, like “Who’s Bigger” and “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” The latest item in my list of historical lists is a neat article about an interesting looking book: “A History of New York in 101 Objects: A Thoughtful Visual Encyclopedia of Collective Memory.” In it, Maria Popova discusses Sam Roberts’ attempt to capture New York’s 5 boroughs and 8.4 million people in a series of artifacts. Like the BBC’s 100 objects, Roberts’ book underscores the power of material objects as repositories of memory.
As Popov writes:
Selected with a lens for the “paradigmatic but quirky,” Roberts’s objects are a far cry from the clichés of tourism or the tired symbols of iconography. Instead, they serve as living records of the city’s triumphs, tragedies, and remarkable resilience in cycling through the two, ranging from the artichoke with its secret history of mafia crime, to the AIDS button, which elevated an anguished community from the ashes of the city’s deadliest epidemic, to the school doorknob, emblematic of New York’s commitment to public education, to the air conditioner, which made windowless workspaces possible for the first time.
Inspired by the British Museum’s world history in 100 objects, Roberts uses images as doorways to the people, events, and stories which have shaped New York. As he put it:
The objects themselves had to have played some transformative role in New York City’s history or they had to be emblematic of some historic transformation. They also had to be enduring, which meant they could not be disproportionately tailored to recent memory or contemporary nostalgia. Fifty, or even twenty-five years from now, would they seem as vital or archetypal as they do right now?
Using examples from A History of New York in 101 Objects (water tanks, library lions, a Dutch-English dictionary, the Civic Fame statue, the Bloomberg computer terminal, and a neighbourhood Madonna statue) Popov meditates on the power of objects and the ways they can convey emotional energy and meaning. Under Roberts’ skillful direction, they capture the essence of New York.