National Treasures: a hoarder’s dream, like an anti-capitalist Antiques Roadshow

Review: Everything here tells a story. Just because something has no value, it insists, does not make it worthless

'National Treasures' presenter John Creedon warmly identifies with several items of bric-a-brac left lying about the place

'National Treasures' presenter John Creedon warmly identifies with several items of bric-a-brac left lying about the place

 

National Treasures (Sunday, RTÉ One, 6.30pm) is so reluctant to discriminate between things that it’s hard to say exactly what it is. To narrow down the options, it is a nationwide campaign, a travelling roadshow, a digital archive, a museum exhibition and a four-part television programme telling the story of the nation. At its simplest, though, it is a big bunch of stuff.

“Stuff” feels like the appropriate word, unpretentious and unrestrictive, which is what the project’s appeal for crowd-sourced everyday objects has yielded. It’s an accumulation of mementoes and tchotchkes: silver cigarette boxes, political posters, album sleeves, Aran sweaters, metronomes, weapons, furniture, ledgers… It is a portrait of Ireland, pieced together in items people couldn’t bring themselves to throw away.

This makes the programme a hoarder’s dream and a declutterers nightmare; a persuasive argument that items without value can still have inestimable worth, like an anti-capitalist Antiques Roadshow.

Mingling amiably with the Cork public for the first episode, RTÉ’s John Creedon warmly identifies with several items of bric-a-brac left lying about the place. An ancient Turkish Delight tin, for instance, once purveyed by Armenian immigrants in Cork, reminds Creedon of being chased out of the shop by its proprietor Hadji Bey, with the words, “Get out of here, you little gangster!”

It’s tempting to see echoes of the Soviet spirit in this project’s desire to share its wealth

That small moment corresponds with a bigger idea, that objects contain stories and trigger associations. Though it involves an online archive, here National Treasures feels like an antidote to the evangelism of digitisation, preferring to get its hands dirty.

Take the satisfying evidence of a worn copy of an anti-conscription pledge, from 1918, which curator Róisín Higgins argues represents an important foothold in independence; or a bullet-pocked silver cigarette box, which saved the life of one contributor’s great grandfather from the Black and Tans – “They say cigarettes are bad for you,” wisecracks curator Donal Fallon; or the evocative smoke damage to a poster for the gay club night Flikkers, at Dublin’s Hirschfield Centre, burned down in an arson attack in 1987. Everything here tells a story.

As its loose chronology and refusal to prioritise indicates, this is a rummage through social history. Often an object is only as important as what its owner attaches to it – a guitar pick from Rory Gallagher, for instance, pressed into the palm of a fan at his last concert; a second World War soldier’s St Anthony figurine, stowed in a bullet casing, kept by an Irish nurse in London; or even Sonia O’Sullivan’s track vest and runners from the 1992 Olympics, at which she placed a fourth, proudly donated by her father, John.  

Handling such items, the curators wear protective white gloves, which, given the sheer volume of contributors, also makes them look slightly like traffic cops. In that case, do they ever say stop? (It’s noticeable, for instance, that for all the Bosco mugs we see in the frame, no one is thanked for them.) It’s not a small point. If everything is a treasure, nothing is.

That’s why the inclusion of a leather strap, used to beat children in an industrial school, and a ledger containing a complete record of boys sent to a another school in Limerick seem all the more important – evidence in a long national scandal rather than things to have valued. Indeed, when Fallon recalls an early 20th-century Irish flirtation with the Soviets, and a collective bakery’s slogan, “We make bread not profits”, it’s tempting to see echoes of that spirit in this project’s desire to share its wealth.

For the National Museum of Ireland, which will display a selection of these storied keepsakes, that ought to make for a cost-effective exhibition – everything here is generously on loan . But that seems appropriate for the patchwork story of a nation. You can’t put a price on it.

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