Lost and Found

Tracing personal histories through everyday objects

31 August, 2022

How often do you sit and think about the objects that surround us in our homes? How often do you think about the memories attached to them? What role does an object’s material memory play in sparking conversations? These questions are the driving force behind the Museum of Material Memory, a digital repository that traces family history through personal antiquities and social ethnography.

Founded in 2017 as a passion project by Aanchal Malhotra and Navdha Malhotra, the museum is a digital crowdsourced platform for contributors to submit stories related to objects—from the 1970s or earlier—that they find in their homes. The stories narrate the history of the object and, with it, reveal the customs of its time. The objects seem outwardly ordinary, ranging from old photographs and jewellery to utensils and books. For Aanchal and Navdha, who were friends in school, the most important thing was to keep the platform digital and accessible to all.

The idea for the museum emerged when Aanchal, a Delhi-based historian, was conducting research for her debut book, Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, published in 2017. The book revisited the history of Partition through personal objects. During her research, which took over five years, Aanchal realised that people had innumerable other objects that were old but not related to Partition. “It seemed to me that there were a lot of caged artifacts in the subcontinent area that the younger generations didn’t know enough about,” she told me. “While we seem to collect objects quite easily in the subcontinent, we may not assert the same importance to them if they are mundane or objects that are not monetarily valuable anymore.” 

The museum thrives on the stories people submit. Willing contributors are sent a guiding document that can help them answer important questions about their object. Questions range around materiality, ownership, look, time period, usage and origin. Aanchal and Navdha, an aspiring ceramicist and the global head of campaigns at the advocacy group Purpose, corroborate the origin of each object through archives, popular media and intensive research. Contributors work with the founders to create a narrative about their family history. “It is difficult to get people to slow down to be able to see these inanimate objects as potential receptacles for stories,” Aanchal said. “It is not in everybody’s nature to immediately stop and pause and think about generations that have come before them. This takes persistence on your part.”