An MIT Alumni Association Publication

David Dobkin '70 Keeps Collecting

  • Joe McGonegal

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David Dobkin '70 collects old popsicle sticks, credit cards, and lids from Snapple bottles. He owns over 800 snow-globes and 11 shoeboxes full of old postcards.

Dobkin also happens to be the dean of faculty at Princeton University.

But it was in the former role—that of collector—that Dobkin showcased his collected work in found sculpture, memorabilia from ages past, and photographs from his travels, at an exhibition at Princeton’s Lewis Center for Visual Arts last fall.

Entitled "Myself, I Think We Should Keep Collecting Titles,” the exhibit featured beaded curtains made from Dannon yogurt lids and keyboards, scores of license plates from various states, and photographs of phone booths and restaurant menus from around the world.

Take a tour of the exhibit of Dobkin’s work. You might also suggest a title for it in the comments below.

“I’ve taken quite a few pictures in my day,” says Dobkin, who has taught computer science at Princeton since 1981. “Lots of pictures of waiters and waitresses and menus…I think if it’s a sign and I’ve seen it I’ve taken a picture of it."

Dobkin started building things from found objects at an early age. On business trips, he started collecting snow globes and paperweights, and then people started giving them to him as gifts each year.

“Paperweights are the quintessential form of kitsch,” he told one interviewer. “I have a paperweight of Jesus walking on water from a Bible Book Store in Nashville, a few high-end musical paperweights (including one from Graceland that plays ‘Love Me Tender’), salt and peppershaker paperweights, a paperweight that was made by a friend for my wedding using a candy jar, a bride and groom from a garden shop and filler from a bean bag chair."

Making time for art does not completely conflict with Dobkin’s career in code.

“I've written software…before hashtags became popular, I created my own version of hash-tagging, so they’re all identified in a way that you couldn’t hope to do without a computer,” he says.

Much of his art serves at least one utilitarian purpose: reminding Dobkin of the places he’s been. Dobkin says he can recall where he was when he acquired 99% of the objects.

“A lot of the things you see constructed are in and of themselves boring, but if you step back and say ‘life is really about the details, and it’s the details that make life work,’ this is filled with life, and the details that make life work.”

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