Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2018

How Long Does It Take for Memories to Fade Away?

I am spending more and more time in graveyards. The first reason is genealogical research. I am determined to locate as many of the graves of Linda’s and my immediate ancestors as possible, photograph them, and pass the information down to our children and cousins. I know few will care. I care; more than ample motivation to do it.

A second reason is to participate in a final farewell to family members, colleagues, and friends. Previously, I wore my black suit to baptisms and weddings. Today, I wear it to funerals, the number of times increasing each year the older I become.

As I walk through each cemetery and read the names on the tombstones, I am struck by the fact that most individuals buried there no longer exist in the memories of the living. Their only earthly tie is their name on a monument or plaque in the ground. In some cases, all traces of their burial is lost. No family member bothered to place a tombstone on the grave of my great grandfather Rinker. I know the cemetery in which he is buried, the plot plan for which was lost or misplaced decades ago. When a local library bought the cemetery adjacent to it for expansion purposes, another relative, one of my Revolutionary War ancestors, was disinterred and moved. Where remains a mystery.

More than half the names on my family genealogy chart are just names. I know nothing about them. Most did not probate a will. Prior to 1860, newspaper obituaries contained only a minimum of detail. None were the subjects of books. Their memories have faded to the point of being lost.

Memories play a critical role in the antiques and collectibles field. Collecting and memory are integrally connected. Memories of objects, just like those of individuals, fade away.

People collect what they remember. Childhood, personal, and family memories play the largest role. I collected Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia because he was my childhood hero. I did not collect William S. Hart memorabilia. He was my Dad’s hero. My Hoppy memories will never fade. When I disposed of the bulk of my Hopalong Cassidy collection, I discovered, to the detriment of my pocketbook, how much his memory faded with those under 60.

Memories do not necessarily have to be family related. Contact with a collector, especially one who educates and shares the enthusiasm associated with the objects he/she collects, often arouses an interest in another to collect the same material.

A desire to capture the memories of a historic time period or event is an incentive to collect. It is common to find the time period or event occurred before the collector’s birth. There still are individuals who understand how easy it is to be part of the past by touching and being associated with objects from it.

Academic historians and others argue that because of their work, memories will last. I do not believe it. Books, images, and objects are not enough. Recently, I watched a documentary on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) about the lost films of the silent film era. Some were made as recently as a century ago. There are books written about these films. Who reads the books, what libraries shelve them, and how long will they actually exist? When “who cares” is measured in smaller and smaller numbers, even hard copy material fades away.

When I first became a collector rather than a saver in the early 1960s, the assumption was that once a group of objects was collected, the objects from that group would be collected forever. Time has proven this assumption false. This is especially true the more specialized a collecting category is. Few remember when Geisha Girl china was a hot collecting category. Hoppy, Gene, and Roy have ridden off into the sunset and so has interest in their memorabilia among younger generations. It is no one’s fault. It is simply fact.

Several decades ago, I argued in a column that Elvis memorabilia had peaked and its value was in decline. A number of “Rinker on Collectibles” readers disagreed I doubt if they would be so adamant in 2019.

There is a general assumption that certain iconic things, especially movies such as “Casablanca,” movie personalities, for example Marilyn Monroe, or music groups, especially the Beatles, will stand the test of time. Lately, I have begun to question this.

How long a period is the test of time? Eternity is pushing the limit. Three generations or a century is too short a period. If the test of time is measured in centuries, few objects will meet the test of time criteria.

On January 10, 2019, Kevin Berger, features editor for “Nautilus,” posted an internet article entitled “How We’ll Forget John Lennon: Our culture has two types of forgetting.” See the URL: http://nautil.us/issue/68/context/how-well-forget-john-lennon. “

[Author’s Aside: The antiques and collectibles field does not exist in isolation. Principles and research from other fields can help increase understanding of how the antiques and collectibles field functions. When I find this type of information, I share it.]

Berger reported that a student walked into the office of Cesar A. Hidalgo, at the MIT Media Lab. John Lennon’s “Imagine” was playing in the background. When Hidalgo asked the student if the student recognized the song, the reply was “Is it Coldplay?” Berger noted: “What struck Hidalgo, though, was the incident echoed a question that had long intrigued him, which was how music and movies and all other things that once shone in popular culture faded like evening from public memory.”

Recently, Hidalgo and a group of colleagues published an article in “Nature Human Behavior” that explored “how people and products drift out of the cultural picture. They traced the fade-out of songs, movies, sports, stars, patents, and scientific publications.” [Candia, Cristin, and C. Jara-Figueroa, Carlos Rodriques-Sickert, Albert Laszlo Barabasi & Cesar Hiladgo. “The universal decay of collective memory and attention” in “Nature Human Behavior,” Volume 3, pages 81-92 (2019. See the URL: www.nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0474-5?WT.feed_name=subjects_physical-sciences.)]

The group identified two types of memory: oral communication (communicative memory) and the physical records of information (cultural memory). Collecting would fall into the cultural memory classification. Oral communication was found to have a life span of five to 30 years. A period of written and online records [objects in terms of a collecting perspective] follows. The decline of this information is much slower. I was pleased when I saw that Hidalgo used the same example of Elvis memorabilia as I did. “What happened is the people who collected Elvis memorabilia started to die. Their families were stuck with all of this Elvis stuff and trying to sell it. But all of the people who were buyers were also dying.”

Hidalgo and his colleague found that the decay of cultural memory was not smooth. The first decline starts with a short, intense attention period and decreases very rapidly. The second decline takes longer. This latter applies to most object groups, at least those prior to 2000.

Hidalgo and his colleagues argue that the rapid expansion in the digital age has a negative impact on the decline of both communicative and cultural memories. The result is an information glut making it impossible to create long-term cultural bonds that hold groups and generations together.

The abstract to the “Nature Human Behavior” article notes: “We show that, once we isolate the temporal dimensions of the decay, the attention received by cultural products decays following a universal biexponential function.” As a former mathematician (at least for 18 months as an undergraduate at Lehigh University in the early 1960s), I understand science’s need to explain everything with an equation. As an independent thinking individual, I resent and will never stop resisting being quantified.

Before dismissing the above, Hidalgo and his colleagues’ conclusions do apply to the antiques and collectibles field. The longer one is in the field, the more one understands, respects, and expects the fading of collecting categories. The first edition of “Warman’s Antiques and Their Prices” was published in 1948. Buy any of the first ten editions and compare the category listings within it to the objects found in today’s antiques and collectibles flea markets, antiques malls, shops, and shows. The differences are startling.

Will there be a time when I will no longer be remembered? You bet. The good news is that I will not be around to witness it.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.


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