The Roaring 20th Century Tour t-shirt, 1988Artifacts have an interesting relationship with archives. The traditional spheres of influence for cultural institutions has been libraries for published works, archives and manuscript collections for unpublished paper and media-based materials, and museums for objects. In reality, though, all three institution types routinely are stewards for all materials and need to make judgments about their research value, access, and preservation.
As an intern at New York Public Library's Manuscripts and Archives Division this spring, one of the projects in which I participated was processing the artifacts found in the Timothy Leary papers. I was able to witness firsthand some of the challenges and benefits that artifacts create for an archives. Artifacts have unusual storage requirements and are less information-dense than papers, audiovisual materials, or born-digital files. Still, they grab attention and create a sense of connection with a subject in a different way than other archival materials do, and as such make a unique contribution to collections.
Artifacts have the ability to capture the imagination, and one of the primary uses of artifacts for archives is to promote the collections through exhibits. There is an undeniable appeal to the visual, and artifacts can provide an eye-catching representation of ideas that are documented more comprehensively in the paper and media of a collection. A t-shirt that Leary received for promoting a technology company, a name badge from a conference at which he spoke, or the wacky bric-a-brac sent to him by admirers provide insight into Leary's interests and interactions with the public. These objects are physical representations of Leary's interest in technology as a new frontier to expand human consciousness, the nature of his public persona, and the emotional response he provoked from fans and foes alike.
Objects found in the collection range from the unusual to the mundane, and both types give researchers insight into his personality. The papers include, among other things, Leary's shoes, promotional t-shirts, a Dodgers baseball cap, a box of calling cards and a dog tag from his days at West Point, and two decks of playing cards, handmade and repurposed. Buttons for conferences, political campaigns (including many for Larry Flynt's run for president), companies, and social issues illustrate Leary's alignments in the larger sociopolitical environment of the twentieth century. While some artifacts place Leary in the broader cultural milieu, others speak to more personal connections. Like most people, Leary retained family keepsakes, such as knitted pieces by his daughter Susan. These artifacts illustrate another aspect of Leary's life.
Leary's practice of annotating materials has been mentioned earlier on this blog in the context of the papers. In the artifacts series, his annotations have transformed otherwise commonplace objects into representations of his activities. For example, an empty film canister is identified as drug paraphernalia by the presence of his notes. A rock is contained in an envelope which is covered by his musings on the fan who gave it to him, turning this object into evidence of his relationship with fans. In some cases, the annotations also relate directly to his work. On one envelope, he describes how he received a deck of playing cards that he repurposed for the Game of Life. He also used these cards in conceiving the software project The Electronic Bead Game.
Artifacts have a unique ability capture the attention and imagination of potential researchers. Anecdotally, when speaking with people about projects I had worked on at the library, I often brought up crossing paths with Leary's Nintendo Power Glove and his death mask. Indeed the Power Glove has already generated some attention for the collection. An already peculiar vestige of an era of video games that inspires nostalgia, this controller is made all the more curious by the Leary provenance. Perhaps some of the other objects mentioned in this post will similarly inspire further examination of the Leary materials once the collection is open for research.