THE GRANDMA MUSEUM
THE BEGINNING OF A VERY LONG DISTANCE CHAT WITH SARAH KOIK
Sarah Koik is a designer, an educator, a potter, and a creative polymath. What happens when someone with such diverse talents receives an unusual mix of mementos from her grandmother? You get The Grandma Museum.
LJ: How did you come to establish the Grandma Museum?
SK: Years ago I had a friend over and they asked about something on a shelf nearby in my apartment. I casually said, “Oh, my grandmother gave me that.” Then he happened to touch something else, and I once again said “She gave me that too.” He asked how many things in my apartment came from her, so I decided to pull everything out. It wasn’t until everything was laid out on my hardwood floor that I realized how much of my everyday objects – my forks, my dish towels, my tools, my books, were actually originally my grandmother’s from her life. Through a long conversation and spending time with the objects I realized they were really beautiful each on their own, and how nice it would be to catalogue everything, and to show how her life became mine through these things.
LJ: Could you tell us what was the favourite item that you received from your Grandma?
SK: A couple of people have asked me this and it’s hard to really choose. There are the more sentimental objects like a pin she gave me once with an image of a boat on it. She wrote me a note with it that said “You are a viking. You are strong.” My grandmother is originally from Estonia and a few years ago I finally went there for the first time, and wore the pin she gave me as a kind of protective shield, and to remind myself that I was strong while I travelled alone for the first time. One day in a museum I ended up seeing the same pin behind glass, and through some wild gestures and hand signals (I don’t speak Estonian) I was able to get a staff person’s attention and show them my matching pin on my sweater with the one in the case.
The staff person started to laugh and actually gave me a hug – I learned it was a rare pin from an island off the coast called Saaremaa. My grandmother had this pin since she was a young girl, immigrated with it, and then gave it to me. Finding its twin in the way that I did has made it that much more important to me. I think my grandmother is one of the strongest, most brave people I have ever met. And when I wear the pin, I really do feel like I am as well.
But some of my favourite gifts over the years have been much more benign. My grandmother gave me a box of rocks once, “For projects,” she said. “In case you want to paint them.” And with that she also gave me a painted rock, as an example of what I could do. She has also given me bags of homemade string from leftover cloth that she sewed into piping. “In case you need to tie anything,” she would say.
I just adore her attention to the everyday object and how useful everything can be. And she is not a pack rat and is very lucid and sharp, so it’s important for me to clarify that her relationship with these things that she has saved over the years is very sincere (and very organized). She truly sees the value in these things and has slowly passed them on to me, probably because I think she also knows I see the value in them as well.
LJ: Could you discuss the importance of the emotional value of ‘stuff’? Can you tell us how you think your work touches on the idea of ‘peak stuff’?
SK: I think that I have a very personal and emotional relationship with stuff, objects, and the way they were made or gifted and how they fit into my life. Sometimes I think we hope people would become less materialistic and are even encouraged to see the stuff in our life as a bad thing, but I think if we were to shift that thinking and actually strive to find the deepest meaning and intention behind the objects in our life and see each thing as important, I think our time with them would be better spent.
Maybe it’s about keeping the things you treasure for longer and passing those things on to those that you treasure, and moving away from accumulating more or newer or better constantly. I think this touches a bit on the idea of “peak stuff” too – because I feel this deep emotion towards the objects and the people and stories linked to them, I feel full and not really needing much more.
LJ: I would love you to tell us a little more about your other work — with the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford and with the Exploratorium. In particular, can you tell us how a virtual museum differs from physical ones? What are the benefits? What importance do you believe they have? Are there experiences they can offer that other museums can’t?
SK: My work in museums and in learning environments definitely influenced my initial thinking behind creating a digital archive for The Grandma Museum. For the last ten years I’ve had a career as an educator, project manager, and designer creating spaces for teaching and learning particularly in the sciences and other STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math). But I have a background in the arts, and always found museums a fascinating space for people to be curious, and ask questions about the world around them. I like the idea that they are spaces for people to learn what they want to learn, and that we are there to help guide the person along that path through exhibitions, facilitation, and experiences.
I currently manage a program with Stanford students and community youth creating after school programs through science mentorship. Within that framework I’m very interested in curating the experience for both communities participating, and sharing with them things that might often go unnoticed or are overlooked. And I think that was my hope with The Grandma Museum – I wanted to create a space to pay attention to the details and make the sundries feel monumental. The common thread with all of my work is I do approach it as a designer, even though the medium and format has changed.
Creating the online space also made me realize the incredible power of the internet – and how sharing collections and stories in this medium could open up so many opportunities for storytelling and connecting with communities all over the world. It takes up so little space but can impact such large numbers of people – it’s quite exciting. I think the internet is an incredible tool, but I think much like any tool there are always limitations.
A museum definitely has limitations – especially when it’s in a specific place, often costs money to get inside, and can be inaccessible depending on a variety of factors – but I hope as new tools like the internet and other technologies come along we don’t lose things like physical spaces for experiences. Both spaces, be it digital or physical, live in concert – and I hope they all continue to be present to reflect our experiences back on ourselves to help us live deeper and more thoughtful lives.