GRANT McCRACKEN collects pieces of Canadian society that today look a lot like junk, but tomorrow or centuries from now may be part of his museum's permanent collection.
As a curator in the Royal Ontario Museum's Department of Ethnology, he says his job is to think about which objects in the contemporary world will give special insight into today's cultural and social experience when viewed 10 or 20 or even 100 years from now.
"Even modest and apparently trivial objects can assume greater and greater significance as time goes on," Dr. McCracken says, "especially if you talk in enough detail to the people that owned and sold these objects. I just did a study of teenagers and their use of various styles of clothing and ornaments."
What McCracken did was to collect the clothing of teens and talk to them in detail about their lives and the objects they donated. The purpose, he says, was to "catch this part of the 1990s in amber," alluding to insects trapped by tree resin ages ago and preserved.
He collected bits of clothing from self-described B-Boys, preppies, punks, rockers, and hippies in the Toronto metropolitan area. Footwear in general, and running shoes in particular, are a great "marker" in the teenage community today, he says.
Preppies tend to wear Docksiders, he says, while hippies wear Birkenstock sandals with a negative heel, and punks don high-topped Doc Martens boots ("Docs," they call them). Rockers, on the other hand, wear high-top sneakers. Among the B-Boys - kids who listen to rap music - the mandatory footwear is black Nike high-top basketball shoes.
How will such objects help scholars understand the '90s? Without such artifacts and the records and interviews that explain them, a future culture ends up with a caricature of a period, he says, as when television offered the "Happy Days" show as a remembrance of 1950s teens.
"That's a pretty pale recollection," McCracken says of the popular sitcom (on ABC from 1974 to 1984): "It's always the stuff we don't normally record but eventually return to. There was a big '50s revival in the '80s. The trick for us is to see how much of the material culture and `ideational' culture we can capture...."
The rock group Nirvana, for example, is at the center of a movement called "Grunge" rock that was alien to him, McCracken says. "They have a song called `Smells Like Teen Spirit,' and I had no idea who they were or what that song meant until I asked kids about it."