Among the grand exuberance of Las Vegas, the Office of Collecting & Design is a haven for the minute, the small objects that have been broken, separated from their partners, or grown obsolete and somehow found their way into the hands of Jessica Oreck. An artist and filmmaker, Oreck serves as both caretaker and cultivator of this magical and somewhat bizarre “collection of collections,” and she prides herself on finding value and use where others might not. In its current iteration, the museum houses countless objects from handmade sushi smaller than a pushpin and a teeny-tiny tube of Colgate to stone marbles and limbs detached from toy figures.
Oreck spoke with Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert via email in October 2022 about the origin of the ever-expanding collection of miniatures, how respect and intuition ground her approach to the objects, and the mysterious story behind one of the strangest items she’s encountered.
This conversation has been edited for clarity. All images © Jessica Oreck, shared with permission
Grace: First of all, can you tell our audience what the Office of Collecting & Design is? When did it open, and what is its current function?
Jessica: Located near downtown Las Vegas, the Office of Collecting and Design is part museum, part library, part nostalgia machine. It is a collection of collections, devoted to the forgotten, the diminutive, the discarded, the misplaced, the broken, the obsolete. We’ve been open a little over a year.
The museum is a truly interactive space. Visitors are encouraged to sit and peruse books in the reading room, open all the drawers, look in all the boxes, take stuff out of jars, and spend time closely inspecting the collection. We have drawers of broken doll parts, pencil stubs, lost buttons, marbles, dollhouse furniture, used pink erasers, dice you can’t play with, and empty matchboxes—it is basically an elaborate installation of leftover fragments from our collective memories.
The space is also thoroughly multi-purpose. During the day it’s open to the public—11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays or any other time by appointment—but it also functions as a prop library for my film work. When I have no appointments, I sneak into my studio at the back and animate. At night, we host events in the museum: craft nights, readings, tiny concerts, dinner parties, and we also offer the space for rent as a backdrop for photoshoots as well as a BYOB cocktail hour.
Grace: Have you always been a collector?
Jessica: My parents say that I started collecting before I started talking. (Likely some snowball mythology there, but who am I to argue?). Though my earliest collections didn’t make it to adulthood, collecting remains very much at my core. Being a collector feels like one of my defining character traits. It isn’t just objects, but the way I live my life. The way I travel, the ideas I am drawn to, and most especially the way I work, are all built around patterns and series.
When I started making stop-motion animations professionally in 2011, that prompted an entirely new echelon of collecting. Many of the collections in the museum were seeded from props used in short films I made. Now it is a source of mutual motivation. Sometimes the animations instigate a collection, and sometimes the collections inspire an animation.
Grace: How is the collection organized? There are so many drawers and boxes!
Jessica: I am not sure that I can articulate exactly the organization. Although objects are generally categorized by theme, the space dictates the display more thoroughly than the theme. For example, some tiny humans belong on the Tiny Human Wall, but some belong in the Tiny Humans Drawer. Some tiny food goes in the food tray, but other tiny foods go next to the tiny fruits, or in the drawer of tiny kitchen supplies. I can’t tell you *why.* It’s just how it is.
I think the displays are a fairly accurate representation of the way my brain works. It’s riotous and joyful and abstract but still adhering to some ineffable logic of patterns and series.
Grace: How do you approach curating from the collection? I see you’ve done a few different displays in the reading room.
Jessica: It has been a very intuitive process. The entire undertaking has been a lesson in trusting my approach, my ability, and myself.
It’s hard to explain (even to myself) what is important in the design. It feels to be simply a matter of knowing that something is in the right place or it isn’t. Sometimes, when something is out of place, I walk into the space and it feels out of balance, like the whole room is tilted in one direction or another. It sounds sort of mystical and highly impractical (from an outsider’s stand point), but that’s the best explanation I have.
The space and the displays are constantly evolving. As new objects come into the museum, I often have to rearrange great swaths of the exhibit in order to accommodate even the tiniest of pieces. Sometimes I am sad to break up the flow I’ve established to incorporate something new, but I find it tends to end up superior and more compelling in its new iteration.
The objects, to me, sometimes have their own voice, certainly their own personality, and if nothing else, at the very least an inexpressible weight that dictates where they belong. It feels ridiculous to say that out loud, but… too late.
I try to preserve that connection while still keeping the object accessible for new interactions, new connections, even if that means the physicality of the object may degrade. The collections aren’t frozen behind glass. They are very much still a part of a living, breathing existence.—Jessica Oreck
Grace: Is that sense that the objects are animate in some way a sort of reverence? You’re clearly taking care in preserving these items, whatever their current state, and that, to me, feels like an act of respect for the memories they hold and their legacies as objects.
Jessica: Oh, absolutely. Reverence and respect are both words I would apply to the way I feel about the collections. We talk about the “residue of attention,” which is a way of talking about the sort of embedded memories and values an object holds. I see each object as being stitched together with the fabric of both its creator and all its previous caretakers. I try to preserve that connection while still keeping the object accessible for new interactions, new connections, even if that means the physicality of the object may degrade. The collections aren’t frozen behind glass. They are very much still a part of a living, breathing existence.
Grace: What are some of the more surprising, intriguing, or unusual objects in the collection?
Jessica: One of my favorite objects in the museum is something we received as a donation very early on. It came in a package with a couple of other lovely objects, but this particular piece is just so darn mysterious. The package had very little information—we now require more info when folks donate—but the note just said that the donor had had it for a long while and thought it would find a good home at the museum.
It is a tiny wooden box, about an inch square, relatively old, based on wear to the wood. The sides and top are wood-burned with little designs and the letters XNYD. The lid pivots to one side to reveal a little pocket lined with dried rose petals and what look to be pieces of eggshell. And nestled in the middle is a tiny desiccated fish. I. Have. So. Many. Questions.
But I love that someone made that. And then someone saved it for many years. And then someone sent it to the museum. I often joke that had anyone else received this strangeness in the mail they may have been concerned, considering who might be sending them a death threat. But to me, it is the perfect object to welcome into the collection. I can’t imagine it could have a better home.
Grace: This is fascinating! You haven’t figured out what XNYD stands for at this point then? Are the rose petals and fish real?
Jessica: I still don’t know what XNYD stands for. And the rose petals and fish are 100% percent real. Luckily, the fish doesn’t have an odor. (I double-checked.)
Grace: Are there specific things you’re still hoping to find or have donated then, since the collection is always growing?
Jessica: I guess because I tend to value the value-less, I don’t really set my sights on specific items. It feels more like the objects find me. I am attracted to the forgotten pieces at the bottom of the junk drawer, the object you’ve had for so long, it’s become sort of invisible. Those are the treasures that make my heart beat a little faster.
But we are always looking for *vintage* versions of unplayable dice, single dominos, used pink erasers, lost game pieces, lonely buttons, three-legged animal figurines, and basically anything in miniature.
Grace: What are unplayable dice? Maybe someone in our audience has some that they’d like to send in.
Jessica: I categorize “unplayable dice” as any dice that wouldn’t pass muster in Las Vegas. Most of my collection are quite old and often handmade. The sides may be a little uneven, the pips might be off, the corners chipped, the weight not perfectly distributed… The dice I find most charming are the ones that are the most wonky.
Grace: Why is it important to you to make the collection accessible to the public? How do you balance preserving the items and allowing visitors to touch and create their own flat-lay artworks with the objects?
Jessica: You know, when I first opened the museum, I was really just interested in having a well-organized space for all my collections. I had a lot of anxiety about people stealing stuff or things getting broken. But it only took me a couple of weeks to realize that the true value of the space is actually the visitors. I love getting to watch people light up when they connect with a particular object. Almost everyone has a moment when they see something here, and it unlocks some half-buried memory. I treasure those moments. I love getting to see what sparks visitors, hear about their own lives and collections, and in some cases build long-term friendships. If things get lost or broken, I’m sad, but it is far outweighed by the delight of getting to share.
To me, the tactile aspect is critical. It’s the opposite of the digital world we inhabit most of the time. Each of these pieces of trash/treasure hold the “residue of attention.” All the things they’ve witnessed, the love and use they’ve been afforded, people get to run their fingers through that when they visit. It feels a little like magic.
Grace: That’s beautiful. What are you working on at the moment? What’s next for the Office of Collecting and Design?
Jessica: Someday, I’d love to move the museum into a shipping container and make it mobile. I’d love to be able to bring it to different places and meet an even wider variety of people. I can’t begin to imagine how I could possibly secure the inordinate amount of money that would require, but I can still dream!
Since the museum also functions as a prop library for my animation work, I am currently working on several new animated series, short documentary/educational content that is super fun, but I haven’t found the right venue. I’ve made several series for TED but am looking to branch out. My dream is to be part of an educational network, a group of folks making work that is well-researched and well-curated and somehow makes us money too while not slaving to an algorithm based on ad research. I’m sure there is someone out there who is looking for exactly the content I am making. I hope they’re reading this!
And I’m always looking for commissions and collaborations, so please reach out.
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