I was visiting Ann Arbor over the last couple of days. My parents live there and I went to school there. It's a cute little town if it wasn't so small and so cold. It also houses of my shrines, one of the most important and resonant places for me, the University of Michigan's Property Disposition. Property Disposition is a strange kind of university organization. They get rid of stuff that the U no longer wants, but which still is perceived as maybe having some value. All stuff counts, whether it's a shelving unit or an electron microscope or a dishwasher. Many large organizations solve this problem with big auctions in which whole pallets of semi-random stuff are sold to local junk dealers and to reps from other large organizations. A pallet with a desirable camera lens may also have a baby incubator and a box of cleanroom booties along with it. Property Disposition is different: it's open to the public and stuff is individually priced and parted out. This makes it one of the best garage sales in the universe, and an ongoing one at that.
To me, it's also a museum and an amusement park, a puzzle and a game. For 15 years I've been going there whenever I can (which nowadays means once or twice a year, but it used to be once or twice a month) and looking through the stuff that's in the warehouse. The stuff constantly changes since Property Disposition's job is largely to empty the warehouse as quickly as possible, so there's always something new. What's there are the products of the material culture of science and medicine: microscopes, meters, centrifuges, specimen cabinets, strange boxes, examination tables, grey Steelcase desks and lots and lots of computers. Much like Ebay is, to me, the most important repository of material culture information about America, Property Disposition is—taken through time—the ongoing documentation of the history of American science in the later 20th century.
It's also science artifact purgatory. It's the last place that much of this stuff is still in its original condition as an instrument. Sometimes the stuff gets a second life in some other university role (U departments get first crack at it), but more often than not when it leaves, it leaves to either be remade in some industrial capacity, as a personal object, or, as is often the case, as junk. Behind Property Disposition are two big dumpsters: one has things that have metal in them, this goes to a metal recycler; the other, things that don't have metal, this goes to the dump. I used to dumpster-dive the recycling container nearly every week, pulling interesting-looking technology from it. For a while, I had a Saturday decompression ritual: I would go to Property Disposition, pull out some interesting-looking piece of technology from the dumpster, and then spend the afternoon disassembling it while listening to the Down Home Show. It was a meditation on the objects. I learned a lot about how things are made and, most importantly, it was a way to honor the objects and all the hard work they embodied, to rescue from them one final bit of knowledge before I took the disassembled pieces back and tossed them back in the dumpster. The products of technology are so emphemeral, despite the fact that they're made out of rock, metal, glass and plastic, that something in me felt they needed one final send-off.
Sadly, the quality of the objects has changed as science has changed. The full-on Frankenstein Esthetic faded in the early 90s as handmade custom designed machines (often in wooden crates with brass hinges, unlabeled dials and hand-soldered hardware) gave way to general-purpose computers, but you can still find pieces that echo the jerry-rigged, messy way that science was conducted, before all of that became hidden in lines of code and databases, and I still get a rush from it, from trying to figure out what did what and how it all fit together.
This last trip there were three things of note: