Every thing has a life of its own but can things tell their own stories?
A proud teapot and a homeless drum, a belligerent chamber pot and an antique gold coin, Goethes shoe buckle and Lou Reeds wax doll, a depressed mobile phone, Kafkas Odradek, Bernd the Bread and 50 other things provide answers in the exhibition The Story of My Life. Object Biography as Concept, Method, and Genre.
Objects encounter different fates between production, use, loss or repair. They are gifted, sold and auctioned, loved and kept, collected and exhibited, they disappear and are rediscovered again, they are stolen and sometimes returned. They travel around the world or lie still in drawers and depots for years. They get broken, thrown away, restored and recycled. Things - in other words - have a life. Researching and narrating their biographies is of interest where things are produced and consumed or collected and stored.
The object biography allows to relate different stages, events and relationships in the life of a thing to form a coherent story. This process also reveals what is not yet known about their materiality, whereabouts, or ownership.
This makes the object biography a very useful concept. For example in museums where it helps to clarify questions of provenance, restitution or restoration. Where things are produced and sold, object biographies can highlight production processes, criticize modes of consumption, or serve as a marketing strategy.
The object biography has a surprisingly long history. First introduced to academic scholarship by the anthropologist Igor Kopytoff in 1986, it had been 'invented' by the Russian writer Sergei Tretyakov as early as 1929. In his essay "The Biography of the Thing", the latter calls for an end to the classic heroic novel and instead envisages an equal human-thing relationship through the writing of object biographies. Biographies of "wood, grain, coal, iron, flax, cotton, paper, locomotive [...] have not yet been written", Tretyakov states.
However, exactly such stories had already been published in the 19th century, for example by the famous Danish writer of fairy tales, H.C. Andersen.
The playful and experimental exhibition explores the object biography in four chapters, using numerous examples to illustrate its institutional, commercial, and critical applications. Asking what we see with object biographies, what would otherwise remain hidden, whom they benefit, and why they appeal to us, an exciting story emerges.
The exhibition takes place within the context of the 50th anniversary of the Werkbundarchiv Museum der Dinge
The Story of My Life was curated by Ann-Sophie Lehmann (University of Groningen) and Imke Volkers (Werkbundarchiv Museum der Dinge).
Curatorial assistance: Alexander Renz (Werkbundarchiv Museum der Dinge).