Mint Condition

Further expansion on my ramblings on fakeness and authenticity. This time I’m thinking about use, preservation, and the nature of old objects. While I admire and even covet finely-crafted objects, I very much believe in the concept that things should be used.

This puts me in an odd position regarding museums which are displaying objects like chairs or other furniture. So much of the purpose of design is the utility and ease of use of the object. It’s a shame to have them displayed on pedestals or behind glass where all we can appreciate is how they look. It’s always nice when a museum includes replicas you can handle and use and get a sense for all the aspects of the design.*

*This is an area where the new Oakland Museum excels.

As someone who is sensitive to craft, emphasizing use often keeps me from spending money. If I am not willing or able to use the object, I have a hard time justifying its purchase. It is very rare when I purchase a functional object with just its display purposes in mind.* What’s more typical is that I purchase a cool-looking old object with the mindset that, if I can’t get it working, at least it will make a nice display.

*My coin collection may be the only example here. And many of those coins, since they are out of circulation, are preserved as “history” rather than for their function. So perhaps it’s just the modern proof sets which really count as functional objects purchased solely for display purposes.

Keeble and Shuchat’s $5 bargain box has become my indulgence for these urges. The Kodak Retina IIa, Kodak Retina I, and Kodak Pony 135 C were all purchased with no real certainty that they worked, just that they appeared to work. If they didn’t work, they were all too interesting to pass up anyway. Which is how I developed my rules about old camera purchases. They have to take (or be convertable to) 135 or 120 film because if I can’t shoot it (even unreliably), it will feel like a waste to have it on display.

Similarly, as much as I like books and wince when I see them damaged, I can’t stand the idea of having a book so fragile or valuable that it cannot be read. The more creases I see in the spine, the better. I’d rather have a facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer than the real thing. And if I spent the $600 for such a book, you can bet I’d actually read it.

If the object is too expensive or fragile for me to feel comfortable using it, I shouldn’t own it. I’m not careless with what I own, I just don’t shy away from things like shooting my cameras in whatever weather presents itself. While I certainly understand the urge to protect old, fragile, or valuable objects, I just don’t see the point of having such an object if it isn’t to be used. This point of view is one which is frequently shared on Antiques Roadshow and is really the saving grace of a show which would otherwise risk getting bogged down in questions of “worth.”

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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