This piece by Michael Peter Edson, is part of our celebration of the online release of Patterns of Commoning, an anthology of essays about notable commons from around the world. Edson's essay was originally published in the book, edited by me and Silke Helfrich and now freely accessible at patternsofcommoning.org. All chapters are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.
Edson is a strategist and thought leader at the forefront of digital transformation in the cultural sector. Formerly with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Edson is now Associate Director/Head of Digital at United Nations Live Museum for Humanity, Copenhagen, Denmark. The opinions in this essay are his own.
By Michael Peter Edson
It was usually a note in the newspaper, a few pages back. Or, if the blaze was big enough and a camera crew arrived quickly, a feature on the evening news. It seems like house fires were more common when I was young, and the story was often the same: “As they escaped their burning home,” the newscaster would say, “they paused to save a single prized possession…” And it was always something sentimental – not jewelry or cash but a family photograph, a child’s drawing, a letter, a lock of hair. Ephemera by any measure, and yet as dear as life itself. Museums are simple places. Libraries and archives too. Collect, preserve, elucidate. Repeat forever. We don’t think about them until the smoke rises, but by then it’s usually too late.
When Hitler ordered the destruction of Warsaw in 1944, the army tried to set the national library – the Biblioteka Narodawa – on fire, but the flames smoldered. It turns out that the collected memory of a civilization is surprisingly dense and hard to burn, so a special engineering team was brought in to cut chimneys in the roof and holes in the walls so the fire could get more air. Problem solved. Museums, libraries and archives are simple places, but once the flames take hold they burn like hell.