Don't be alarmed, but the paper in your hands is worth more than you realize.
You have five pictures of your grandmother's youth, if you're lucky. You have 15 of your parents. You have 2,000 of yourself in 20 different Facebook albums that catalogue every moment of life that ranks slightly more interesting than waiting in line at the bank. In a way, digital culture means more memories, higher ratios of cultural preservation. But what about the tangible documents of our lives? What happens to the physical material of our culture in a digital age?
Not so long ago, you would always hold in your hands the publication that kept you informed and entertained. You could touch and feel the documentation of your culture. Now we interface with our culture on a screen. We see a photo, read an article and hit the little "x" that discards our culture via digital magic.
Where Y'at lives on your coffee table for a month or two, 'til it is tossed away for the next edition. But why keep it? Culture is preserved online, in files and databases that exist in the ether. Someone else out there (the elusive "they" perhaps?) is documenting the times, picking which songs, scenes and events will be replayed and relayed to the future.
Now, I'm not suggesting you start hoarding every Where Y'at until your cat can't find a place to hide under the bed. But I am suggesting you pay a certain lady a visit. In a time of intangibility, in a city stripped of possessions, Margaret Smith is a true phenomenon. She is preserving the physicality of cultural history, all from the comfort of her home.
Margaret grew up lucky number 13 of 14 kids. She knew struggle and learned from an early age that "it isn't about Black or White, it's about Green." Determined for her children to have a different life, she started "investing in stock" some 30 years ago. Her stocks aren't abstract figures or estimations; they are tangible items, pieces of the past that you can touch, investments you can hold in your hand.
She shares her story with me in her Garden District home; the front rooms doubling as the exhibition space for her collection of comics, trading cards, magazines and stamps. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with plexi-glass panels that protect comics from the 1940s. Shelves line the room and overflow with books of stamps and trading cards (more than 10,000 baseball cards, some dating back to the 1910s).
It is truly a spectacle, bright aqua walls make it seem as if you're swimming in a sea of culture. A panorama shot would reveal 360 degrees of preservation. And yet, you feel you are not only in a gallery, but in a home. Margaret's positivity and enthusiasm about her collection are contagious. If it's possible to see such a staggering collection and not smile, then Margaret's personality will certainly have you beaming.
Forget the sterile gallery spaces of traveling art shows, solid white walls with a piece every 10 feet. This is exhibition, New Orleans style, where every inch is rich with personality and life. Indeed, the collector and collection are synonymous.
I see the display of artifacts as an extension of Margaret herself. She has a relationship with each item. She saw something worth treasuring, and by doing so, turned herself into a preservationist, her treasures into artifacts. Her museum is truly hers.
The left wall is devoted to Essence magazine. She's been collecting Ebony and Essence both - from the beginning,- and was featured in the Coca Cola Essence Music Festival in 2010 and 2011. Her collection goes deeper than the traditional staples of collecting: stamps, baseball cards and comics. She collects things that matter to her. She decides what will be important someday by making it important now.
This aspect of her collection is particularly fascinating to me. Though it is extraordinary to have as many rare stamps, cards and comics as she does, it is not hard to understand the motivation - they are worth money; they are from the past; there is an established tradition of collecting these items. So what place does a plastic Saints football have next to an original Captain America comic? Margaret's collection is the answer.
When things are stored digitally, we have to put forth little effort to save them. Nearly every party you've attended is documented, if not by you, then by somebody else, online. We can exist without worrying about documenting our lives; we can actively create memories while passively preserving them. It's all on the Internet - the books we love, the celebrities we love to hate, the local shows we attend.
But what Margaret has done is allowed the physical space of her life to be altered by the things that matter to her. She makes literal room in her life for the things that she believes have cultural weight. It is a relationship with culture that is increasingly rare, no matter where you are. In New Orleans, it is nothing short of a miracle.
Two weeks before Katrina, Margaret's friend had a vision: she would lose her collection, and her home would be split in two. Margaret immediately moved her collection to storage on Carrollton. Still, water came to her storage place and flooded up to the fourth floor. Her collection was stored on the fifth.
But Margaret did lose her home. She stayed away from New Orleans for some time after the storm, visiting post offices and continuing her collection in the face of so much loss. Volunteers rebuilt her home and helped create the museum as it stands today. Now Margaret smiles as she shows off her home - it is beautiful, and her collection is intact.
Look through the drawers of anyone's home and you'll see a story. You'll learn a little bit about the life they lived, their values, their delights, maybe even their fears. A look through Margaret's home will tell you a story of perseverance and loyalty, a stubborn bond with the things you can hold in your hands and say "This makes me feel happy."
We know Margaret's shiny new Saints memorabilia put a direct smile on her face.
But what about a 1979 issue of Essence? Who flipped through those pages and felt empowered, enlightened, amused? Margaret's home is home to sensation; a museum for the relics of our past and present. Be it a rare stamp from the Great Depression, or a 1993 Al Gore trading card, it is a piece of our cultural history. The only difference is time. An antique matters because somebody cared enough to treasure it. Margaret's got those covered, and in the meantime, is defining the treasures of our present.
Now Margaret's life is her collection. These investments of a young woman have turned into the livelihood of a mature legend. Her job is to maintain and continue to build not only her collection, but a network of support for her vision. Pay her a visit you won't regret.
BOOK A SHOWING
Margaret B. Smith Collections 2427 Laurel St., 70130 Email [email�protected] to make an appointment.