A Brief Plot Summary of My Thesis: The Ephemeral Museum

December 12, 2012

There and Gone

Postcard, circa 1968 (eBay)

Postcard, circa 1968
This postcard was found on eBay. The auction for it ended on Dec 11, 2012 10:45:59 PST, so by the time you see this, it will be gone or the auction page relocated to a new url. This link will survive for 90 days before it will be deleted from the eBay servers.

The most comprehensive museum in the world is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre or any other brick and mortar complex. That glory goes to the Internet: the most comprehensive museum of human culture ever devised. You can “google” for almost any information, artifact, or opinion and receive informational responses in minutes. Images uploaded onto now-dead websites can be “dug up” with a few easy-to-learn computer tricks and “preserved” on multiple computers belonging to a wide range of folks around the globe. Of all the websites archiving information, the best artifact database system in the world is the plethora of auction/storefront websites like eBay, Etsy, and Ruby Lane. These sites are ever-changing and chock full of amazing artifacts in their rawest forms. Here is an exceptionally small sampling of iconic historical items found on these sites gleaned from only the one hour’s worth of browsing:

Embroidered Waistcoat, circa 1770-90 (Etsy)

Embroidered Waistcoat, circa 1770-90 (Etsy)

Black Dot Paste Buckle, circa 1780-1800 (eBay UK)

Memorial Ring for Elizabeth Cox, circa 1818 (Etsy)

Silk Jacket, circa 1866-73 (Ebay)

Silk Day Dress, circa 1869-1874 (Ebay)

Straw Bonnet with Silk Ribbons, circa 1875-1885 (Etsy)

Silk Velvet Dinner Dress, circa 1880 (Ebay)

Leather Lattice Button Boots, circa 1860-1870 (Etsy)

Mythological Shell Cameo, 19th to early 20th century (Ruby Lane)

Wedding Dress and Photo, circa 1920 (Etsy)

Leather Peep-Toe Heels, circa 1940 (Etsy)

Halter Dress with Bow, circa 1955-60 (Etsy)

Mini Dress, circa 1960 (Ebay)

Wedding Dress, circa 1960 (Etsy)

1970s shoes

Platform Shoes, circa 1970 (Etsy)

All of these item photos are linked to their current listings, but in 90 days, the eBay listing links will become defunct while Etsy listings may last for a year or more even after the item sells. How long Ruby Lane listings last is dependent upon the individual sellers.

With such a wealth of human culture changing hands in the span of a 3 day auction, these websites have become the most ephemeral museum in existence. Every trip through the thousands of pages yields a fresh exhibit crammed with items that are often untouched by the restorer’s hand and newly discovered after years of lying in a trunk, forgotten. Unlike a physical museum that keeps objects for years–carefully archived and cared for–an item in the “museum of the internet” can disappear from the public view faster than you can say “Buy it now!” The sales pages and images may vanish after only a few days, leaving nothing but residual code and memories of an amazing item that is now, once again, out of reach.


There are a few wonderful websites that are dedicated to preserving the information found on the internet. One of these precious few is Isabella’s “All the Pretty Dresses,” which archives exemplary examples of antique clothing found on internet sales websites.  No doubt you’ve come across a fair share of “Golly, I wish I had the money to buy and save that dress!” listings in your lifetime or even watched an item only to find that it ended an hour ago, before you could get a bid in. Hopefully the gowns themselves went to caring bidders, but what about the information?

Embroidered Button, circa 1740-1780 or 1860-1890 (Etsy)
“It’s taken me a lot of research, this beastie! Though replications are still made by hobbyists today and there was a resurgence of this style as a hobby in the early 1900s, the fact that this one has a wood mould (bone was used after the late 18th century) and is rather large, I’m concluding it is from the mid 1700s or earlier.” – faginsdaughter, Etsy seller

The information, you see, is just as valuable as the artifact itself. The goal of a museum shouldn’t be to squirrel away expensive artifacts so that no one can see or study them. The goal of a museum is quite the opposite: to educate, save, and preserve so that cultural items can be shared with posterity. Collecting and archiving isn’t about owning the the item; it’s about sharing the knowledge contained in the item. With so many rare and wonderful artifacts passing through our servers each day, as history lovers, museum workers, or caring hobbyists, aren’t we responsible for the preservation of such knowledge no matter where we find it?

Mother of Pearl Buttons in Box, circa 1880-1910 (Ruby Lane) 

Combing through such a large swathe of internet for relevant artifacts is a huge task that would take a coordinated team of people to complete. There’s a massive amount of raw data to process. How do you decide what’s worthy of archiving? I am an obsessive history hoarder and would want to archive as much as possible, but even a “real” museum has parameters to follow when it comes to collecting. Not every twisted old Victorian boot or 1950s bow-covered prom dress needs to be meticulously archived, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore such items all together. Designers and name brands are important, but exceptions and common goods are important, too.

International Flags Windbreaker, circa 1985-95 (Ebay)

An all-too-common 1980s windbreaker jacket in hideous colors may not seem worthwhile to us because many of us have clear memories of wearing them, but what about our children? I was born too late to witness the Gunne Sax trend of the 1970s first hand, but my mother remembers coveting one in a store window.  Yet, as time passes, fewer and fewer Gunne Sax dresses will survive.

Maxi Dress, circa 1970-80 (Etsy)

Imagine that disappearance factor multiplied for 1950s cat-eye glasses (now 60 years old), or 1920s beaded collars (80 years), or 1890s watch fobs (120 years). Every generation sees our contemporary common goods become scarcer until that item becomes a mysterious object from a bygone era.

Bobbin Winder/Thread Holder with Pincushion, circa 1870-1930 (Ruby Lane)

Thousands of these cultural items are passing through our internet portals each day. We’re generating tons of archival information. If only we could document it all!

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