Why do people collect things? The motivations are as varied as the objects people collect. Perhaps it’s loyalty to a sports team, for instance, or an obsessive desire to accumulate a single kind of object such as stamps. It may even be fueled by the “law of contagion” that drives bidders to own celebrity talismans, believing the objects are infused with the essence of their previous owner.
Regardless of motivation, every collection has a backstory.
They reveal not just their owner’s addictions but also larger narratives about culture, community and the city. With this in mind, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Public Library launched the recent exhibition “21 Collections: Every Object Has a Story.” The free exhibition, which runs through Jan. 27, is on display at the Central Library’s Getty Gallery, with programming at select branch libraries across the city.
The exhibition, as the title suggests, presents 21 collections. They vary widely and represent a range of interests from science to cultural history to seemingly trivial ephemera such as paper airplanes and candy wrappers. For curator and program manager at the Library Foundation Todd Lerew, the exhibit highlights the role of libraries as collectors, not just of books and movies but also lesser-known collections. “Collections represent the stories of the city, and we wanted to honor the role of the library as the keeper of the stories,” says Lerew.
The exhibition features one of the library’s collections, focused on bullfighting, and reveals the connection between Southern California and its Spanish cultural heritage, where bullfighting was once a common spectacle at religious events. The collection was originally compiled by a LAUSD Spanish teacher, George B. Smith, and is perhaps the largest of its kind in North America.
However, Lerew wanted to cast a wider net when he curated the exhibition than the library’s own collections. Over the course of two years, Lerew visited more than 600 institutions that housed a variety of collections, including libraries, privately owned collections and museums before whittling the list down to the 21 in the exhibit.
To celebrate some of these eclectic and obscure museums, the Library Foundation launched an accompanying Instagram account titled @museumaday. While the exhibition is up at the Central Library, the Instagram account, as the name implies, posts photos of one collection per day, from the charming folk art dinosaurs of the Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center in Riverside to the highly detailed model ships of the Channel Islands Maritime Museum.
At first glance, many of the collections in the exhibit express a sense of whimsy, yet a closer look reveals stories of dispossession or loss. Karen Collins’ African American Miniature Museum creates painstakingly hand-crafted scenes of black history in shadow boxes. The Library commissioned several new handmade dioramas for the exhibition, including one that is a tribute to Black Lives Matter and another depicting Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
Artist Alyse Emdur’s poignant collection of prisoner portraits brings a curator’s sensibility to the process of collecting. After finding an old family photo of herself at age 5 visiting her brother in prison against a painted, idealized sunset mural, Emdur began to research prison portrait studios.
She soon discovered the backdrop in her photo wasn’t an aberration. In fact, prisons across the U.S. often feature romanticized backdrops depicting waterfalls, or sunsets, or Italianate villas, painted by inmates in their visiting rooms. Emdur invited prisoners to send her their own family portraits taken against these backdrops.
The result is an affecting collection of family portraits. Emdur captures what she calls the “intense dichotomy of the moment,” that allows inmates to have a moment of escapist fantasy while incarcerated. While the inmate’s own portraits are tightly cropped, revealing nothing of the institutional sphere they’re located in, the collection includes Emdur’s own photographs of the murals, which pan out to show the grimness of the prisoners’ circumstances.
USC Libraries’ ONE Archives looks closer to home, with a matchbook collection of Southern California gay and lesbian bars. The collection doesn’t just expose the history of LGBTQ businesses, it also testifies to the need for safe spaces within that community.
Actor Tom Hanks lends pieces of his collection of vintage typewriters for public exhibition for the first time. The collection includes his first vintage typewriter, a Hermes 2000.
Collecting has a way of elevating the mundane. A collection of paper airplanes found on the streets of New York by artist and filmmaker Harry Smith exemplifies this idea. The airplanes, collected between the 1960s and 1980s were fashioned out of the everyday — receipts, religious tracts, excuse slips from school, and even a menu from the legendary bar favored by Andy Warhol, Max’s Kansas City.
Smith meticulously recorded the date and intersection where he found each paper airplane. While Smith’s intent is somewhat mysterious, the collection suggests the items we amass and protect today may have unknown value to future generations. “It’s a forward way of thinking about collecting,” says Lerew. “You can’t really know what is going to have value in the future.”
Where: 630 W. 5th Street, Los Angeles
When: 10 a.m. - 8 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, and 1- 5 p.m. Sundays.