Returning home today after a trip to Hobart for the Housing Theory Symposium, I made my way through the few pieces of mail which arrived for me over my few day absence. One of the pieces of mail waiting for me was the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society (PMHPS) newsletter. I did not know that was what it was until I opened it; I could not identify the sender or the newsletter inside from the outside of the envelope. My name had been written with a blue biro and my address written with a black pen. The use of two different pens made sense. After all, usually I pick up my newsletter at my weekly Tuesday morning shift unless the newsletter is first available at a monthly Monday night meeting.
I have missed both shifts and meetings lately. The slow progress of my writing, some university commitments, a cold and then the symposium seemed to conspire to keep me away. However, I always knew 2012 would require my thoughts to be on Port Melbourne while I am sitting elsewhere. The arrival of the newsletter by post is a reminder of my physical absence from PMHPS, but it is also a demonstration of my continued membership of that group.
I was pleased to receive the newsletter as they offer a witty account of happenings in Port Melbourne, with a focus on the society and the lives of some of those deeply connected with the society. While the March/April newsletter is packed full of information, including the revelation that PMHPS was involved in supporting a (now cut) episode of ‘Who do you think you are’ (which they certainly kept well under wraps because I had no idea), included in the newsletter is a before and an after photo of some of the society’s now upgraded shelves.
I hope nobody minds if I use the upgraded shelves in my reflections. The story of these shelves or, perhaps more accurately, the move from the old to the new shelves is about the workings of PMHPS. It is about the hours spent contemplating the space, the objects, current best practice and future needs. It is about consulting, conversing, exploring and realising a slightly different way of storing objects. This work was undertaken by a few individuals in different capacities. However, the list of players seems to even extend across the members evoked in conversation but not present; the process was still explained to members who rarely access the collection. To think about how the change took place, and the people who undertook the work, suddenly the story does not seem to be so much about the shelves. In fact, I remember joking with some of the volunteers that I could write a paper about the process called ‘the social negotiation of physical space’.
To stop my description at the shelves, the people involved in selecting, purchasing and setting up the new shelves (and the removal and relocation of the old ones) and the newsletter account of the whole episode, seems to miss the larger point. The new shelving is part of the society’s commitment to preserving a collection of objects relevant to Port Melbourne. The physical properties of the objects already in the collection, such as the size of books and the importance of laying some of these books flat to ensure their preservation, were the rational for the shelves. The objects these shelves are for are as much a part of the story as the people involved in the project.
I am not trying to suggest that the collection objects or the shelves are the same as people. The objects in the collection, the shelves they are located on and the people who access them all appear in the room for very different reasons. Yet they are all there in order to do something: record the past, store these records and give meaning to these records. It is all part of a broader story of negotiated belonging.
This broader story comes from what I have been learning in Port Melbourne, but it is also partly something I am building as a story through my writing. It certainly seems a little odd to write a blog post about the move between the old and the new shelves without even describing the shelves. I am very conscious of the gap between the informative PMHPS newsletter and my reflections on a story which do not even tell you the details of the story. However, I think it is always worth continuing to reflect on our world at all sorts of scales and thank you for taking the time to read this post.