Material Memories

“Things make us just as much as we make things”

(D. Miller, Stuff, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010).

In a drawer in my nightstand there is a wooden box in which I keep some jewelry from past away relatives.  This carved piece of wood contains a small collection of life stories. Most of the things in the box I rarely wear. Marked by inscriptions, they hold clues to lives once lived. It’s a box of memories that aren’t mine, but that I like keeping and taking care off. However, there is one ring set with a purple stone that I’ve been wearing almost daily since the passing of my grandmother Ulla last summer, originally belonging to my great grandmother Mimmi. I have clear images of this ring on the hands of both of these women when growing up. Since I see this ring every day my memory of these two women has slowly gained a purple shimmer. I like the feeling of connection to them, of wearing something as intimate as a ring, that when entering my hand becomes part of how I move, who I am and how other people perceive me.

my dad

An oil lamp in my parents’ house; inseparable from my dad Ulf. Not only is the maintenance of the lamp clearly defined in the family as his responsibility, but whenever lit he is never far away.

The point here is not the importance of memorabilia and nostalgia as such; sometimes we find meaning in this, sometimes it just weights us down. However, stuff and memory is something that affects us all. Our understanding of the present is always in dialogue with notions of the past, whether “real” or imagined. As the quote by Miller above suggest; stuff is not only man-made object that we produce for certain purposes. Stuff also makes us. Material memories are everywhere, surrounding us in the present, and affecting us more than we might think. Not only via tangible objects, but also in scents, sounds, textures, images, and so on. Sometimes the memories are our own; sometimes they are borrowed from someone or somewhere else.

If taking a moment to reflect on this matter, it can help us understand how material objects are part of whom we are and can be regarded as active agents in shaping our identities. Further, there is a power in material culture that can also tell us something about a culture and society on a more general level. On a collective dimension, there is a shared pool of associations and feelings connected to objects and events from the past, shaping not only who we are as individuals but also as a society.