The Archaeological Life of Contemporary Objects

As I continued to read around in the field of the archaeology of the contemporary world, I have become fascinated by the huge body of work on the everyday objects. Much of this work is not properly archaeological or even scholarly, but it points to some kind of abiding archaeological tendency in the way that we engage everyday life.  

Over the winter break, I perused Jonathan Olivares’ design taxonomy of office chairs and Lyle Owerko’s engaging work on the boombox. Both books focused on locating the objects in a larger social context. Olivares’ work, true to its roots in design, documented the development of the office chair through time, presented a technical vocabulary for the common features in office chairs, and provided some broad historical notes on the changes in the office chair’s shape and features. The book is filled with lavish technical illustrations with comments on both design and materials. As any good taxonomy, this book would allow a non-specialist to identify and describe a chair in an office setting. If we follow the author’s preface literally and understand the chair as a marker of status in the office environment, his guide would allow someone unfamiliar with an office environment to recognize the social hierarchy in place. The chairs also provide a way to consider the effects of Taylorism and efficiency studies on the office environment. The chair became a productivity tool as well as an object of status.  

Owerko’s Boombox project is a different kind of book. He provides little in the way of technical details, descriptions, or taxonomy. Rather than elaborate illustration, the core feature of the book is the series of remarkably detailed photographs of certain iconic boomboxes of the 1970s and 1980s. The photographs are large and sufficiently detailed as to reveal wear patterns, damage, and identifying characteristics of each boombox. You can get an idea of his photographs on his website. The detail is such that one can see the the various plastic parts that give the exterior of the boombox its complex and overwrought aesthetic. The part show the kinds of wear that reflect use. The bent “pause” button on tape controls reflected the common practices of pausing tracks to cue up the next song or even using it to freeze the music for the second to syncopate a groove or, in the most skilled hands, to loop it. Broken handles show the limits of these device’s portability and the practice of adding more flexible shoulder straps. The worn plastic faces preserve signs of how the boombox rubbed against fabric in transport with chips and dents reflecting less forgiving contacts. These battle scars complement stickers and homemade repairs to provide a roadmap to each object’s biography.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to conversations about boomboxes and their place within the “urban underground” of the late-20th century and photos of the boomboxes in use. While I’ll accept Olivares’ notion of the office chair as status marker in a traditional office context, I’m skeptical of Owerko’s more romanticized idea of the boombox as a markers of the urban underground. After all, what made the boombox great was that it was ubiquitous. Get any group of American “Generation Xers” together and almost all of them will talk about boomboxes. These are kids from the cities, from the ‘burbs, from rural areas, rich, poor, or middle class. The boombox was not iconic of some kind of subversive underground, but of the democratizing consumerism of the middle class. Maybe it’s best to say something like the appearance of the boombox in certain settings had a destabilizing effect on the expectation that common material possession would create a cohesive middle class identity. But this does not make a catchy title.

Finally, the books are not archaeological monographs or even properly exhaustive studies (although Olivares’s work is close), but windows into the life and times of objects. As archaeologists explore the contemporary world more and more thoroughly, these kinds of non-scholarly collections will start to assert greater value just as, two centuries ago, non-systematic, “amateur” collections of ceramic objects, fossils, or other artifacts became the framework for the first generation of great museums and collections. 

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