Working on a project recently, I had to convince a client that some of the items were too valuable to be disregarded. No, the items were not expensive, one-of-a-kind things. They were ordinary, and perhaps even more common than common. Although they do not have intrinsic monetary value, their worth lie in the stories they tell, and their parts in a greater story.
Whether we’re setting up an exhibition, planning a museum or even writing about a historical period/event is, at its essence, a balancing act. It’s an exercise in decision making. What do you include/exclude? Why do you include/exclude? What stories do you want to tell? What stories do you want to prioritise over others, and why? What are you going to use to help you tell the stories?
For me, the intangible value of items are always more important that the physical monetary value. Perhaps that’s the reason why I still kept the yellowed woodcut portrait of the Goddess of Mercy (Guan Yin) which belonged to my deceased grandmother. She had used it in place of a 3D statue on the altar in her home for as long as my mother could remember. It weathered a couple of moves. It was stored somewhere after my grandmother passed away. Somehow, I ended up with it. I wanted it; my parents were not keen for me to keep it.
In itself, the portrait is probably not worth much. I don’t think it was printed on acid-free paper, and the frame was probably a cheap wooden one, and there are already some insect holes (not serious) in its plywood backing. So where’s the value?
1. To a collector, there’s probably not much value.
2. To a granddaughter, the value lies in the sentiment; that it had belonged to my grandmother, and there’s so little for me to remember her by. We were a poor family that did not have much possessions, neither were we an intellectual family with loads of paper documents as evidence of our lives.
3. To a historian, the value lies in the stories it can possibly tell, and of it being an artefact of its time (1940s possibly).
For me, 2 and 3 will always outweigh 1.