Collections, collecting and unexpected encounters

I had a slightly strange day yesterday.  I went for a meeting about a research project that we are about to start and the team met in the Wellcome Collection’s cafe.  The cafe is great and there is a wonderful bookshop which stocks titles roughly to do with ‘Science’ and there is always something interesting to discover.  As ever, I bought too many books, but imagine my delight when I saw a bin full of cuddly furry microbes from a company called ThinkGeek.

I have been after one of these for some time, and I chose the hilarious e-coli:

I have been looking for one of these as a teaching prop – the old notion of bringing two things together to form something new – soft toys and bacteria, but also about bringing shocking or disgusting things together – what a shame that the Wellcome didn’t stock the ebola virus toy, for example.  This will make a good product of the week for my classes on creativity next term.   In case you are already scratching your heads about Christmas presents, according to the makers these make great ‘gag gifts’: I gave you e-coli for Christmas, that sort of thing.

The exhibition which is currently on at the Wellcome is called ‘Superhuman’ and it is about enhancing the capabilities of the human body.  As ever with the Wellcome, the exhibitions are thought-provoking.  I don’t mind wearing spectacles but can never fully relax with the Olympics because of the possibility that the athletes are doped or drug enhanced.  So, I am happy with some performance enhancement activity but not all of it.  That aside, I was really beside myself with excitement when I saw a genuine Nike Waffle running shoe in one of the cabinets:

This is the revolutionary soled-shoe that more or less started Nike as a business, and which I mention regularly when I talk about organisational storytelling and narrative.  The story, which is often repeated, is that Coach Braverman, who was the co-founder of Nike along with Phil Knight, was having breakfast one Sunday morning and suddenly noticed that the pattern on his waffle would make a fantastic sole for a running shoe.  He skipped church, went out into the garage and found some liquid latex to try out the design in his waffle iron and the rest is history.  I tell this story as an example of the divine intervention or inspiration or miraculous in organisational foundation stories.  So it was fascinating to see one of the shoes:

Having told this story over and over again for a number of years, I was really delighted finally to see the shoe.

After the exhibition I had a bit of time to kill, so I went with my accomplice and project leader, Beatriz, to Liberty’s.  Imagine my delight when I come upon yet another example that I use in my teaching, Cire Trudon candles:

These are pricey candles, they were on sale for £60 each.  One of the things that I try to get my students to understand is that creativity isn’t about the earth-shattering everyday such as coming up with an entirely new way to light our homes.  They are far more likely to be working on variations on a theme.  So, how do we resell/reimagine/rebrand/re-engineer something like the humble candle?  There is a whole lecture on this and Cire Trudon is one of my favourite examples.

The company is apparently the oldest manufacturer of candles in the world and they take great pains over every aspect of the candle – the wick, the container and so on, and, of course, the smell.  So this is an example:

Solis rex

Fragrance of the Mirror Gallery and the vast wooden floor of the Château de Versailles, vapours of wax, candelabras and palace. This kingly and solar perfume blends a green and wooded wake of coniferous trees to the sumptuous dizziness of incense with a light ray of citrus.

According to one account I read there was much sniffing of the wooden floors in Versailles to get the exact smell, and on a cursory whiff yesterday, it really did seem to capture that aroma of slightly dusty stately homes.  They were also presented under glass cloche, so it was a whole performance to smell them, and I felt like some sort of ‘nose’ in a parfumier.  This is a photo of the candles on sale in New York, but it gives an idea:

I would like the students to see the ludicrousness of all this, to see how their buyer behaviour is being manipulated, or at least to understand the branding processes at work.  I don’t know if I succeed, but it is the critical management studies approach,  which is what I hope I practice, in action.

I was thinking on the way home, though, about the magpie delight I had with these three encounters with products.  I don’t collect any of them, but it was the collector’s delight at recognising something valuable in a pile of stuff.  They too are just stuff until we attach meaning to them.  But there is also the joy of completing a collection, even if it is not an actual one.  The delight of recognition.  The joy in being connoisseur with the skills and knowledge to see something from afar.  This is a form of collecting.  Benjamin, one of my very favourite theorists, was fascinated by collecting and collections and wrote about what might be termed ‘high end’ collecting, as well as survival collecting or scavenging.  His work on collecting rare books is lovely, and he completely captures the visceral thrill and adrenaline rush of getting something which finally fills a gap in a collection.  I think I had that on a small scale yesterday, finally getting to see the rare beast of the waffle shoe, where I least expected it, in a glass case among glass eyes, and prosthetics and video art about plastic surgery.  The unexpectedness of the encounter gave it great power.

Superhuman is on at the Wellcome Collection from 19 July-16 October 2012.

The Wellcome Collection describes itself as a free destination for the incurably curious.

Oh, and I think I may have been sitting opposite Jarvis Cocker on the tube.

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