The local museum I visited today holds a collection of stone carvings. Most of them are from China and are composed of jade. After touring the exhibit, I’ve decided to share my self-reflections in this post.
Even though I care about sustainability, I struggle to purchase used items. Part of my resistance is the leftovers of a childhood spent in poverty where much of our food was bought after it had expired and our clothes were pre-worn. I also hesitate because of the provenance of items; I do not know to which scenes they’ve born witness over the years. I felt this especially in viewing items that were thousands of years old. Who else had looked at them and touched them? Were they used for mundane purposes, or had they spent their existence as sacred objects, used only in ceremony? How did they come to be at this museum; were they looted or stolen from the people whose ancestors created them? In a few cases, the museum was able to provide the entire story of the object, which allowed me to feel less conflicted as I appreciated them.
The items I found most appealing at this museum were what I first took to be paintings but learned were “micro-mosaics” made of tiny, individually-fitted glass and stone pieces. The level of detail was astonishing. When I found some modern versions for sale in the gift shop, I was tempted but the price tags kept me from indulging.
My other favorite was a collection of meteorites. I’d first seen meteorites at an exhibit in Colorado and could not get over how amazing it felt to view an item that had come from “outer space.” The museum I visited today had a smaller collection, but one of the rocks was sliced open, revealing an inner geometric, metallic structure that appeared very sci-fi to me.
My final stop was the gift shop where I purchased the malachite box photographed for this post. The person who was staffing the shop was very elderly and struggled in opening the cases for me to look at it, so I bought it as much out of guilt as I did for pleasure. I didn’t even stop to consider where it came from until I got home and saw that the sales clerk had added a small slip that gave information about the piece. It noted that it originated from the Congo. I immediately felt my stomach drop as I realized there was little likelihood that it had been mined, crafted and sold to me in an unbroken supply route of ethical, fair-trade practices, given the poverty and violence in this area of the world. A little research confirmed my suspicions.
I do not want to become someone who is performative and self-righteous in their social activism, who makes a point of noting how everything in their house is second-hand, environmentally-friendly and/or up-cycled (I was around people like this last month and let me tell you…). I also do not want to be someone who takes their privilege for granted and who consumes without consciousness of the human and environmental impact of their behavior. At the minimum, I want to purchase locally when I can. This includes grand plans for visiting many art fairs and farmer’s markets next year. I also want to, when I act without thinking as I did today, step back and educate myself on the back story.
Some items, such as the stone carvings I found today, outlast generation after generation of people, in part because they were deemed valuable and worthy of preservation. I want my actions to reflect the sacred trust we are given in the provisions of the Earth, so that the objects I enjoy are, whenever possible, ethically-obtained, cherished emblems and not stolen pieces of another’s culture or environmentally-damaging, mindless waste. What is your relationship with purchasing and consumption? How do you feel about hand-me-downs versus new purchases? How much attention do you pay to the origins of your treasures?