The mighty pyramids were the first time capsules—long before the term was coined—according to this short, droll, locally made documentary. King Tut's treasures were meant for his afterlife, of course, not us, but the 1923 opening of his tomb apparently inspired ideas of stashing objects away for eternal preservation. Two resulting 1930s schemes reflected those two great, rival sources of American ingenuity: cranks and corporations.
Precious cargo? A time capsule is prepared for the 1964 World's Fair.
TIME CAPSULE: MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
written and directed by Cathleen O'Connell
runs December 30-January 2 at Little Theater
The crank was Georgia's Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, whose 1940 "Crypt of Civilization" would supposedly preserve the endangered essentials of our culture from "oblivion." Paul Hudson, of the International Time Capsule Society (ITCS), charitably explains, "There was this feeling that maybe civilization . . . was going to destroy itself"—at least in Jacobs' mind. We only meet the paranoid doctor in a grainy newsreel, and it's a pity that more such footage doesn't exist, which might raise him to the Errol Morris level of fascinating kooks (as in his Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). Jacobs sealed his tomb in 1940, beaten by the first officially designated "time capsule"—largely sponsored by Westinghouse—at the 1939 World's Fair. This classic PR stunt made the time capsule the repository of popular nostalgia, not Jacobs' fear.
Indeed, it's the populist angle that makes this documentary engaging, as an entire fringe industry arose to provide schools, small towns, and organizations with sturdy metal canisters seemingly buried every day of the week. They're not meant for future civilizations so much as ourselves, to freeze and commemorate time with the personal tokens we lock inside.
The notion of outsider art comes to mind as we visit the site of a Nebraska time capsule that includes a then-new 1976 Chevy Vega. It's history made affordable, that we ourselves get to invent. The quaint ritual of recording also prefigures our current mania for information and documentation—only now using bytes and CD-ROMs instead of coffee cans and shovels.
"Who among us didn't bury something [as a kid]?" asks Hudson of the ITCS, which counts the editor in chief of this paper among its founders. Neither Hudson nor the shoveling crowd themselves take things too seriously, which lends to the film's low-key charm. We also learn that Andy Warhol boxed up junk labeled as "time capsules" and how Carl Sagan was responsible for including more serious earthly information on the satellites launched into deep space. One academic sourly dissents that "self-selection is biased," unlike his study of garbage—but who'd want to hold a commemorative time-capsule ceremony at a landfill?