Consortium for American Material Culture
4th Annual Meeting
Teaching and learning with objects
University of Delaware and Winterthur Gardens & Country Estate
6/7 May 2010
The following pages provide responses to a prompt about teaching with objects:
Select an object: the name of the object is the title of your comments. Any object that sparks a discussion will work. Preferably, it’s one you can bring with you, in reality or in image. Then write a brief response to these questions:
*Why did you choose this object?
*What audience do you address using this object and why is it suited to them?
*How can this object anchor a good interpretive activity?
Following those "conversation starters" are the notes of two sessions from the conference.
Object-based conversation starters Part I
University of Delaware
My object is the illustrated version of Charles Chestnutt’s short story, “The Doll,” which was commissioned for the April 1912 issue of The Crisis, and published during a period in the magazine’s early history when it was striving to increase readership, rethinking its “dress” (i.e., its page layout), and challenging both an aspirational black middle class and a national mixed-race readership to address racial atrocity in “modern” America.
I chose this object because it’s a text I’m trying to write about currently that exemplifies the challenges to the disciplinary protocols of literary study that attention to the physical materiality of a literary object in its original site of publication in a magazine can pose.
Scholars are beginning to pay attention to the “dynamic conjunctions of visual and textual materials” in early twentieth-century African American periodicals and the need for more careful consideration of their mixed-media formats (Anne Carroll). They are noticing how The Crisis’s “coverage of its two most prominent topics, protest against racial injustice and affirmation of the achievement of African Americans,” is enacted through its strategies of mixed media collage.” They are pointing out how the “design of individual pages as “composite texts that mix copy and headlines with photographs, drawings, maps, and graphs” creates meanings that are not spelled out explicitly in any one of the component parts but instead are “suggested by their conjunction” (Carroll). And they are noting how this textual hybridity enables The Crisis to stage “monthly confrontations between aesthetics and black print culture” as columns on “Music and Art” are juxtaposed with statistics and news reports about lynching (Castronovo). In an essay I am writing for a special issue of Modernist Cultures on “Middlebrow Culture,” I am trying to push this sort of object-oriented analysis of literary artifacts one step further by considering about how the author-based methodologies of literary study are challenged by print culture ephemera: challenged not only by the vastness of the modern print culture archive and its generic heterogeneity, but also by the “re-theorization of aesthetics” that turn-of-the-twentieth-century magazines like The Crisis enacted as they attempted to reach and engage newly literate audiences (Castronovo).
If I were teaching Chesnutt’s story to students, I would actually need three objects: the April 1912 issue (“The Easter Issue”) of The Crisis, Sondra Kathryn Wilson’s The Crisis Reader, the 1999 Modern Library collection that re-introduced contemporary readers to this story, and the 2002 Library of America edition of Chesnutt’s Stories, Novels, and Essays edited by Werner Sollers. And I would want students to consider the differences in their reading experiences and expectations in all three contexts. As a discipline, literary studies tends to fetishize “the book” in various ways. By focusing attention on the thing-i-ness of a literary artifact, its material existence as an object in the world, I want students to understand how a literary text’s “bibliographic and contextual codes” inform or shape their interpretations of its “linguistic code” (Bornstein). But I also want them to consider how work in the emerging interdisciplinary field of modern periodical studies both depends on object-oriented analysis and turns the author-based methodologies of literary study inside-out, so to speak, by requiring very different methods of contextualization and interdisciplinary research methodologies (Latham and Scholes).
As they read Chesnutt’s short story in the Easter issue of The Crisis, I would want students to think carefully about: 1) the role that magazines play in the dialogics of the public sphere and in the production of modern citizen-subjects; 2) the role of the arts in a “print-saturated democratic society” in which “the viability of participatory democracy” is fundamentally at question (Collier); and 3) the complex relationships between printed media, the dazzlingly, distractingly visual cultures of modernity, and the world of things for purchase commercially in a modern consumer culture. I would want them to be good close readers of Chesnutt’s story. But in this case a good close reading entails thinking about how Chesnutt’s story contributes to The Crisis’s coverage of racial violence, economic discrimination, and middlebrow, middle-class African American achievement at a tense moment in American history, a few short months after “the Coatesville outrage,” a lynching in Coatesville, PA that drew national and international media attention. A good close reading is not an act of literary connoisseurship or of author-based study. Instead, it involves thinking about the story’s relationship with other objects on the magazine page: the poem by Jessie Fauset that is printed below the end of Chesnutt’s story; the ads for Stropper’s for safety razors that begin to appear regularly on the inside front cover of the magazine, starting with the very next issue of the magazine; the lynching statistics published monthly in “Along the Color Line”; and the editors’ letters to readers about the magazine’s “New Dress” and its rationale for re-publishing lynching postcards alongside critiques of economic discrimination and racially motivated violence against African Americans. A good close reading also requires attention to the material history and economics of both magazine and literary production. A good close reading, in other words, takes a literary historian far beyond her disciplinary comfort zone, exemplifying how—to paraphrase an influential media historian—attention to “the mundane specificity of historical practice” can “disrupt and reconfigure” both historical generalizations and disciplinary practices (Ulricchio).
Ardis, Ann. “Staging the Public Sphere: Magazine Dialogism and the Prosthetics of Authorship at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Transatlantic Print Culture, 1880-1940: Emerging Media, Emerging Modernisms. Ed. Ann Ardis and Patrick Collier. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 30-47.
Bornstein, George. Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Carroll, Anne E. “Protest and Affirmation: Composite Texts in the Crisis.” American Literature 76, 1 (March 2004): 89-116.
Castronovo, Russ. “Beauty along the Color Line: Lynching, Aesthetics, and the Crisis. PMLA 121, 5 (October, 2006): 1443-59.
Collier, Patrick. Modernism on Fleet Street. Burlington and Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.
Latham, Sean and Robert Scholes. “The Rise of Periodical Studies.” PMLA 121, 2 (March 2006): 517-31.
Ulricchio, William. “Historicizing Media in Transition.” Rethinking Media Change: The
Aesthetics of Transition. David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003: 23-38.
Regina Lee Blaszczyk
University of Pennsylvania and the Journal of Design History
The HDTV is a symbol of the sea change that has transformed American
material life over the past century. Beginning with the radio, personal
electronics have shifted consumers' attention away from the bric a brac, or
"cultural hardware," of the Victorian parlor to
the ephemeral experiences, or "cultural software," of the Boomer era.
Certainly, there were examples of cultural software in earlier periods
(books, Coney Island, etc.) and today there are people who still love
things, but the overarching trend has been the shift
away from the treasure-chest era to a throwaway culture, from cultural
hardware to cultural software. I chose the HDTV as my object because of
its growing ubiquity, and because I think it's important to use contemporary
objects as pedagogical tools.
Lu Ann de Cunzo
University of Delaware
(see attached file)
Object: Berlin Wall section
A 12-foot-high section of the Berlin Wall is positioned at the southeast corner of Baker Hall, home of the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy, on the Rice University Campus. It was given to the University to acknowledge former secretary of state James A. Baker III’s leadership of America’s foreign policy in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was taken down and the subsequent successful effort to unify Germany in peace and freedom.
Weighing 5,000 pounds, the panel is 12 feet high and four feet wide. It was extracted from the Frohnau district of West Berlin, on the border with the East German district of Oranienburg, in April 1990. The writing on the monument is actually on the side of the wall that faced east, which suggests the graffiti was applied after the wall came down or after people had access to the east side when the wall was no longer guarded.
Students are likely to have seen this object, positioned near a frequently used walkway, without knowing its history or significance because the signage is minimal. They are likely to be curious about its graffiti and its stark form.
This object can be a good interpretive challenge because its significance changed over time, meant different things to different people, became the focus of remarks by distinguished diplomats, ambassadors, and others, and carries ambiguous markings that fascinate. While being a symbol of oppression in one sense, it is, on the other hand, a symbol of liberation on the other. It is a good culmination for a campus tour for a class that challenges members to recognize items on campus. Teams of students can be assigned to research the background of this and other objects on the tour and to provide their own oral descriptions for the group when the tour is repeated a week later.
Winterthur Museum, Gardens, & Library
Mary Remington's whitework quilt, valances and dressing table cover.
Why choose this? Because through it a wide variety of issues can be interpreted - things like signs of status in early 19th century America, issues of quality in the early American textile industry, the role of "work" in women's lives, etc. A series of letters survive written by the maker, and their story reads like a soap opera. Putting them together with the quilt made me think very differently about interpreting other, more anonymous quilts.
What audience: The other thing I like about this quilt is that it can be of interest to audiences that range from social and economic historians to quilt makers.
Anchor an interpretation: I based a book and exhibition on the issues that came out of the research I did on this quilt. I had no idea that it would be so rich.
Brown University¹s ³Manning chair²
Iberian, ca. 1700
Office of the President, Brown University
I like this object because it contains multitudes. Its several layers of
meaning make it a fertile object lesson about ways we write and interpret
I have used the Manning chair with students, and to a lesser extent, with
Brown alumni groups, to investigate:
-the power of relics
-social implications of property ownership
-the value of archival research
-responsible evaluation of artifactual evidence
-and the potency of longing to distract us from rational analysis.
Its familiarity as a bearer of Brown University tradition makes it a
well-known commodity by which students get to try a little gentle
Although this object exerts iconic power on the Brown University campus,
removing it temporarily from its sanctified role provides a chance for
Kathleen A. Foster
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross), 1875
This is a counter-intuitive choice, as it is one of the most familiar and “interpreted” objects in American art history, but I chose this object because I am daily immersed in the unfolding conservation of the painting, preparing for the fresh “unveiling” of the painting in July of 2010. The didactic program for this installation is consuming me at the moment, as I think of ways to see this famous painting anew.
The audience is a museum-visiting group, of all ages and sizes. Given the size of the painting, it can only be seen in a large gallery setting. This painting has many stories for different audiences: artists and art historians; doctors, medical students and people in the health sciences; Philadelphians learning about their place.
Several lines of interpretation interest me at the moment, aside from the biography and psychology of the artist (the subject of most interest by recent scholars), his grand effort for the Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia, his disappointment when the Art Jury relegated his magnum opus to a peripheral medical building (instead of the Art Gallery), and the shocked reactions of some of his contemporaries, who judged the painting savagely “realistic” and inartistic.
Moving off these topics, I’d like to consider the physicality of the painting as a made thing, full of artifices and choices revealed in close study of the object. An image this familiar begins to seem inevitable to some viewers, or deceptively “photographic” and journalistic to others. The construction of “realism” becomes a topic for discussion. How is the image made to seem “real”? How is it artful?
This discussion also engages the history of the object over time, and how its appearance has changed. Big topic: Is it possible to recover the “intention” of an artist in the past (should we try?) How we go about knowing the “original” appearance? When do we leave it alone?
Taking another tack, a social scientist could take up the subject of the painting: the state of surgery and medicine in 1875. Lister’s “germ theory” was new in 1875 and not yet embraced by Dr. Gross. How does Eakins tell that story, by comparison to his painting The Agnew Clinic, painted fourteen years later? How does this concern remain a contemporary topic?
On a completely different topic, I can speak about a new installation at PMA, “Art in Revolutionary Philadelphia,” which considers furniture, silver, and pewter seized for taxes, sold under duress, or hidden during the war—and the symbolic or commodity value of these objects.
Winterthur Program in American Material Culture
University of Delaware
Object name: Case of drawing instruments, ca 1840-80.
Why did you choose this object?
This object(s) addresses the complex relationships between craft and design. The instruments were used to make scale drawings, to translate ideas mapped in mind to lines that stood in for tangible objects on paper. The drawing in turn shaped the work of an artisan who had to interpret the designer’s wishes into three dimensions using real materials of varying degrees of plasticity. At a symbolic level the objects segment art into classes of designers and mechanics, but it is never that simple. Artisans too, knew how to design and did not need to draw to know how to make things. Thus, the instruments are also tools that allow makers to organize mathematical and geometric relationships. By extension, social, artistic, and economic power is not necessarily hierarchic or linear; it is networked and flexible, simultaneously visionary and vernacular.
What audience do you address in using this object and why is it particularly suited to them?
These objects are suitable for any age group that would not physically injure themselves with sharp points. You can work at the level of geometry or metaphysics depending upon the audience and situation.
How can this object anchor a good interpretive activity?
I use this set with the Culture Fellows to discuss drawing, thinking, and proportioning, followed by visits to the rare book room to study architectural drawing books and the collections to measure furniture. The latter recovers the proportioning system cabinetmakers used in their work. We can replicate the experience if you wish.
University of Delaware
The Grier Collection of Hot Beverage Ephemera
I will bring a small selection of what has become a sizable collection of lids, cups, cup wraps, and other items associated with the consumption of hot beverages on the move. Since 2002, I have been using this collection for “warm-up” exercises with students at all levels, museum professionals, historians, and volunteer groups at museums. These exercises begin with participants having to ask five to ten questions about the objects, writing them down, and sharing them as scribes write them down for display. The questions are then grouped into categories for research, and we discuss the kinds of primary sources that are available and how different kinds of narratives about the collection might be constructed. Having access to the web is good – it allows us to look up sources as we talk – but I often do this exercise with nothing more than a chalkboard and a table for displaying the collection.
The story behind choosing these objects is long and involved, but the upshot is that the objects are cheap, can be handled, and do not paralyze people with their apparent “importance.” In fact, they are very important – I would argue that they are “diagnostic” objects for historical themes as varied as social interaction, mobility and transportation, drug use, foodways, globalization, environmental concerns, changes in tort law, and the history of design processes (materials, production, and styling).
University of North Carolina
The Fish Project
The key question that the Fish Project addresses is: how can sight (concretized in text and image) and sound—sensory categories suited to new media—manipulated through writing, editing, soundtrack, collage, and montage, communicate the sensations of touch, smell, and taste in immediate and affecting ways? We know the material world through all the senses but are limited in reporting and interpretation through privileging sight and sound. Our goal is the deployment of descriptive strategies to get at the inherent paradox of objects: the concrete qualities of things in full array and their constantly evolving situational and semiotic significances.
The Fish Project is an inter-institutional endeavor among participants in the Consortium for American Material Culture, which the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) initiated in 2007 as a think-tank for discussing the practice and future of material culture studies. The project's first iteration was during a seminar on American material culture methodology taught by Catherine Whalen at the BGC in fall 2009. In November, accompanied by Fish Project originator Bernie Herman, renowned food writer Molly O’Neill, and BGC staff, Whalen and eleven seminar students visited New York's New Fulton Fish Market to observe the setting, converse with vendors, and procure fish. They then prepared it according to recipes (and improvisations) of their choice, and consumed it. Working in small groups, students conducted interviews and made video and sound recordings of all aspects of this process as a basis for representing and interpreting this multi-sensory experience in a digital format. Each group chose a different mode of interpretation. One group favored storytelling and decided to make a short film. Another group explored Prezi, a nonlinear presentation tool that offers a variety of interpretive pathways, cued primarily by images rather than text. Still another group conceived of their project as an archive and created a wiki in order to collaboratively build interlinked web pages. Students then self-evaluated their experiences and results, and instructors composed reflections upon vernacular foodways, sustainable aquaculture, pedagogy, methodology, interpretive genres, history, memory, and poetics. During the ASA roundtable, we’ll encourage other teachers to replicate this project.
CAMC Objects Part II
Bard Graduate Center
I’ve chosen student exhibitions for my object, specifically the digital exhibitions developed by the students in my fall course: Material Culture of Nineteenth-Century New York City. I was interested in having students work with objects and themes from the course in a public forum; it was also important to have students work in an alternative medium from the usual course paper, one where they would offer an analysis of their topic, while using the graphical format and the multiple narrative paths offered by hypertext.
Where once we were forced to build a website for these purposes with all the requirements of familiarity using a fairly complex piece of software such as Dreamweaver, now these goals can be achieved with Omeka, the template-oriented, database-driven digital tool developed by George Mason’s Center for History and New Media. Of course, some of the many choices made possible by Dreamweaver are not available, but those were not as central to the purpose of the course or our program at the BGC, where the greatest problem is the time and expertise that would be needed to build a digital exhibition online. The basic structure of Omeka is adding objects (in a variety of media) to the database with Dublin Core data, creating collections, and then working in the ExhibitBuilder to pull objects from the database and add text. Omeka needs to be installed on a Linux server but CHNM plans to host sites in the near future (see Omeka.net).
Students chose their own topics, and are asked to build a few “walls” or sections in Omeka with anywhere from six to twelve objects, while also paying attention to the accompanying text or the equivalent of wall and label copy; a sources page was also requested. Most of the students’ time was occupied with locating material (either online or by scanning books), developing their conceptual argument, and figuring out how to organize it in the hypertext form. Some students spent many hours working in the lab (although they could easily work on this web-based database from anywhere with their own computers) and sharing their work with each other. The project illustrated above was a collaboration by Miranda Peters and Chandler Jenrette on the servants working in the Merchant’s House Museum, a nineteenth-century house museum in Greenwich Village. Those two students and some others thought imaginatively about the entire process and really pushed the templated structure of Omeka with their creative choices and juxtaposition of images, along with their thoughtful textual discussions. A few others ended up with perfunctory products that repetitively placed a single object and some text on a few pages with fairly pedestrian discussions. Still, all these projects were done in the last two or three weeks of the course, even if the topics were chosen earlier in the semester., rather than spending most of the semester on teaching software and the consequent hours in the lab.
Common problems included text formatting problems and the limited range of “skins” and templates for the pages. Still, students were uniformly positive about working in a different medium, one that increasingly would be important for careers in the museum and library field. They were quite enthusiastic over the prospect of building a broader audience for their course work at the BGC. The complete site remains on a password-protected BGC site to avoid any permissions issues. We will need to deal with the permissions issue more fully next time round.
Winterthur Museum, Gardens, & Library
A cane chair made in London in about 1710 and shipped to the American colonies. The chair will appear in person (in chairdom?) at the session on Thursday.
First, I chose the object because it is a common form of furniture (chairs are ubiquitous) but quite different in appearance from what we are accustomed to today. Second, I use the object as a teaching tool for students in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture (but I have also used it in lectures and workshops for general audiences visiting Winterthur). Third, this cane chair serves as a wonderful interpretive device for discussing such themes as function (how does one use this chair; what does it convey today and what might it have conveyed to its owner and viewer in the early 18th century in a Boston home), comfort (the importance of a cushion), style and ornament, mass production (the cane chair industry may well be the first major English furniture form produced on a massive scale by specialists at a relatively low cost), and international trade (the importation of cane from the Far East and the exportation of finished chairs throughout Europe and the Colonies).
L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin
University of Delaware
My Ticket Box
-Why I chose it: An object from home that I could bring in to a 4th grade
classroom (among several examples; the ticket box was to illustrate the value
-What audience: 4th graders whose history curriculum includes an introduction
to primary sources.
- Why suited to them: The box is a familiar object with a perhaps unexpected
purpose. It is intriguingly old with colorful contents.
-How it can anchor a good interpretive activity in a classroom: The box opens
discussion of what is ephemera? What do you keep? Where do you put it? What
information will it tell about you and when you lived to someone else?
University of Massachusetts
I use Mattel's Colonial Barbie not so much in my teaching, but in my public lectures. In talking to people about the myths that shape popular historical imagination about early American women and work, I find that Mattel's vision usually gets a laugh, and then helps people to see what general cultural assumptions are out there about the "ye olde" Colonial Goodwife of American historical pageantry. The doll, which shows a woman doing needlework, but of an ornamental sort, is a great artifact of pop culture thinking about about women and work in the 18th century. It supports a larger conversation about how people come to have these conceptions, which in turn leads to a good discussion about the artisanal work women once did, and why that's become harder to envision at the turn of the 21st century. And the doll comes with a little booklet, The Messenger Quilt, which also helps tease out other myths about American women and needlework
In terms of using the object to anchor a good interpretive exercise, people usually find it fun to deconstruct the various elements of the doll — the mop cap and kerchief, the quilt square in the frame, the book and the gown — to articulate the various elements of colonial womanhood as Mattel envisioned it. Even the apparel itself (a mantua, presumably a synthetic representation of a silk gown, and certainly not the short gown and petticoat that any working woman would wear) gives food for discussion; we want to imagine the gentility sought, and not the work behind it.
The doll, produced in the mid-1990s as part of the American Stories series (in part in reaction to the American Girls dolls, so this all relates to a larger story there too), is joined by Pilgrim Barbie, Civil War Barbie, Pioneer Barbie, and others. This, of course, does not prepare them for another artifact in the Mattel line: George Washington Barbie. But that's another discussion altogether.
Rosemary T. Krill
Winterthur Museum, Gardens, & Library
Object Discussion. Montmorenci Staircase. Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library
Image courtesy of Winterthur;
further questions about use of this image
can be directed to Lynne Boyle, Marketing Communications
I chose this object for logistical and interpretive reasons:
1) Logistics: The staircase is readily available to me as a teaching tool. Every visitor on the introductory tour at Winterthur sees this staircase, and generally, they remember it. The staircase is in a large area, which can accommodate a small group safely. The logistical downside is both that real-time access to the staircase must be scheduled around public tours, that I certainly can’t put it in a basket and bring it to a classroom, and that visitors/students cannot walk up and down it!
2) Interpretive reasons: The staircase can lead in several, fairly-well-documented interpretive directions, including:
Visual impression: The staircase is unusual visually. Its elliptical shape, its ornament, the fact that it rises through two floors, and its free-standing construction attract attention and curiosity easily. Most people are awed. Most people judge it as beautiful.
Choice about using objects to create one’s own setting: The reasons for H. F. du Pont’s choice of this staircase and an image of the staircase it replaced are fairly well-known. An interpretation in this vein can lead visitors or students to think about their own choices and the scale of available choice depending on wealth. Comparing the rejected stairway and the Montmorenci stairway can illustrate the definition of style as the repetition of visual charactertics that suggest relationship and that are based on choice.
Context of a design tradition: It is fairly easy to point out details that lead to an explanation of a local design tradition, then tease out ideas of community, patronage, and craftsmanship. Luckily, there is good secondary source support in Catherine Bisher’s account of “The Montmorenci-Prospect Hill School: A Study of High-Style Vernacular Architecture in the Roanoke Valley,” in Southern Built: American Archtitecture, Regional Practice (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 159-187. Wintercat NA720 B62.
Even a casual question about the people who made and used the staircase in its original site can bring up a questions of class and race.
Using a historic fabric in more modern interiors: People always seem receptive to an answer to the question: “How did they do that?” And they seem interested in answers to the question: “How do you know what you know?” The staircase leads to both.
The fact that the staircase exists at all seems a bit weird and certainly a big effort. The story of collecting architectural salvage; the logistics of collecting, transporting, and installing the salvage; the decisions about using more or less of the salvage; and the craftsmanship/skills needed to accomplish the installation all seem interesting to visitors.
Luckily, it’s fairly easy to see detail of what appears to be original fabric and pieces produced later, probably by Wilmington Stair Company. People can see this on the chair rail; they can get very close to it. They can see evidence of a maker’s hand. That is the kind of detail that seems powerful in teaching: showing people a detail, noticing/hoping that they feel empowered by this bit of knowledge, then moving into some more general realization based on that detail.
Envisioning using the staircase: It’s fairly easy for people to imagine using the staircase. The typical reactions are sliding down, throwing the bouquet, decking the halls. As elite an object as this appears to be, it has some human scale. And then, it’s possible to suggest that it’s not really a staircase anymore, since people don’t use it to go from floor to floor. The realization can lead to discussions about museums and exhibitions.
My experience is mainly with Winterthur visitors, both general public and groups with specific interests. It is particularly suited for the logistical and interpretive reasons above.
The interpretive activities suggested above are mainly based on looking and talking. In that way, they are allow person-to-person interactivity, but not person-to-object interactivity.
If I were teaching a material culture or museum course here at Winterthur, I might link a study of Montmorenci to a study of the Galleries stairhall. It would be fun to think about ways in which each staircase is used, why ‘big stairs’ are a Winterthur ‘brand, what it feels like to move up and down the stairs, what it would have felt like to use stairs ceremonially, what it would have felt like to craft either staircase, how staircases facilitate or impede use of the building in which they stand.
Ethan W. Lasser
The first object visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum encounter when they enter the American Collections Galleries is a ceramic portrait pitcher depicting the Haitian General Toussaint L’Ouverture. L’Ouverture was a former slave who led a revolt against the French colonizers who occupied Haiti in the 1790s, and he helped secure Haiti’s independence from France. Abolitionists regarded L’Ouverture as a hero, and the pitcher was one of several produced at the Sables Pottery in Medford, Massachusetts, one of the centers of the Abolitionist movement in New England.
The pitcher teaches visitors two valuable lessons. First, in its portrayal of a radical revolutionary, the object challenges the common assumption (among visitors to my museum, at least) that the objects on view in the decorative arts gallery are innocuous and apolitical. Second, as an object that is both representational and functional (or at least potentially functional: it is not clear if these pitchers were ever used), the pitcher teaches visitors to ask questions about physical interaction and bodily experience in order to understand historic pieces of furniture and ceramics.
To expand this second point: At a young age we are taught that museums are only for looking. This rule isn’t particularly consequential in a gallery of paintings or images, but in a gallery of ceramics and furniture, it can be extremely limiting. Household objects were designed to serve human needs and to interact with the body. To simply view the object, to simply study what it looks like, is to miss entire dimensions of its meaning and significance.
Toussaint makes this clear. His face appears noble and heroic. With his three-cornered hat and frontal gaze, he is memorialized as a victorious soldier. But these visual effects are undermined by the physical relationship the pitcher invites.
By juxtaposing the object with a painted portrait (of, say, a white elite), displaying a reproduction of the pitcher for visitors to handle, or by simply asking the visitor to imagine what it would feel like to take hold of the black handle behind the general’s face, it becomes clear that the object subjugates Toussaint even as it celebrates him. As the face on a hollow vessel designed to be lifted, handled and to have its contents served, Toussaint continues to serve and to be mastered and potentially even mangled by the (white) hand of the user. His face also decorates an empty vessel.
What is instructive about Toussaint, then, is the gap between the information one can ascertain by simply looking at the object and the insights one can glean by imagining what it would feel like to physically interact with the object. Made aware of this gap, the visitor is well-positioned to broaden her interpretation of the other objects on view in the gallery and to start to ask different questions of furniture and ceramics than she asks of the paintings exhibited in adjacent spaces.
Other curatorial strategies that help encourage these questions include: object handling sessions, videos of objects in use, galleries of reproductions for visitors to use, and natural history museum-style dioramas depicting mannequins engaged with historic objects (hokey, but effective).
Together with powerful objects like Toussaint, these strategies can help visitors gain insight into historic objects and draw meaningful connections between the objects and ideas presented in the gallery and the objects they experience in their lives outside the museum.
Ann Smart Martin
University of Wisconsin Madison
I use a celluloid hair receiver as my “mystery object” in many classes as one of the first opportunities to look closely at seemingly common objects and try to infer function, age, use, meaning, etc. This item generally stumps the class. When the mystery is solved, this object immediately historicizes material culture as practice and connects it to humans and bodies.
• Form container: What might it hold? Why hole in the middle? Why lid? Why size and scale?
• Function: hair receiver: baffles modern sensibilities. For most students the idea of saving hair is “gross” (because hair is now considered refuse) and there is little way to imagine the utility/romance of individual hairs as memorial and decoration or even the idea of saving hair from your brush to create a “rat” for greater hair volume.
• Material celluloid—early plastic—but marketed as “French ivory” as a form of faux luxury,
• part of set: very popular in dresser sets 1920s-30s. Extremely common middle class ideals about feminine hygiene and beauty; sets scale in price and number. Also individual.
University of Delaware
The Afro symbolizes a range of visual politics and is an emblem of personal,
political and stylistic agency that has and continues to influence artists,
filmmakers, and commercial markets. From the natural to the Black Power
Movement, black hair style is/as style politics is inextricably related to
American and black diasporic history. The Afro’s associative history can be
introduced to audiences of all ages and interests, surely one reason it was
“canonized” by the Smithsonian Museum of American History in the 1990s. It can
be used to introduce the concept of the scopic regime, that is the relationship
of codes of seeing to the visual. What we see is dependent upon a larger
history of interpretation and meaning and ways of seeing. How we see is
implicated in what we see.
Elizabeth (LiLy) Milroy
(see separate file)
University of Delaware
My Favorite Teaching Object: The Kodak Jr. Autographic Camera
In general, I like to use clusters of objects to teach with, but if I have to pick just one it would be a somewhat beat-up Kodak Jr. Autographic camera (c. 1915) I picked up in a thrift store years ago. I use it mostly with undergraduates to talk about the way late 19th century industrialization changed the kinds of everyday objects people had in their lives, how those objects were made and used, and, in the case of the camera, how technology from the “age of mechanical reproduction” might have changed the ways ordinary people saw themselves and their world. I usually begin by passing the camera around the class so that students can have a tactile experience with the object and can closely observe the materials from which it’s made, which include wood, leather, metal, and glass. Then I tell them how the camera works and why it was one of the first user-friendly amateur cameras. A while back, I realized that in the age of digital photography this included explaining the act of focusing a camera and loading film.
This object is probably particularly suited to the questions and assumptions native to my own material culture training in the history of technology. It not only engages issues of industrialization, but also the bigger questions of where new things come from; the agency of makers and users; and the mutual shaping relationship between technology and culture.
University of Delaware
*Native American "Gaming Piece" (Jornada Mogollon archaeological
culture, ca. AD 600, Lincoln County, New Mexico)
The object interests me at multiple levels. First, given its prehistoric
context (ca. AD 600 from a Native American house site in SE New Mexico),
its function is not truly known. However, by analogy with historically
known items, it is generally interpreted as a "gaming piece", used in
gambling games. Second, it is interesting from a social point of view,
coming as it does from a relatively modest community in a "fringe" area
of the Southwestern Puebloan world. Finally, it raises the issue of
shifting material culture categories, both over time and between cultures.
The object would be well suited for a range of audiences, ranging from
children (the "cool" factor of an ancient bone artifact) to a
contemporary Native American group (raising issues of ties to an
ancestral culture for some, as well as questions of change over time),
to a Euro-American audience (raising the issues of shifting cultural
categories noted above).
The gaming piece can then become a basis for discussion at multiple
levels. How do we infer function? How do /categories/ of function shift
over time? And how do categories of function translate between cultures?
What is "gaming" now in the broader Euro-American context, in
contemporary Native American life, and in past cultural contexts? How do
other such categories vary?*
William R. Scott
University of Delaware
The object I chose might not even be one: the human body.
Last week in my graduate seminar, I encouraged students to think about their own bodies to launch a discussion of readings focusing on the history of the body. A material culture approach to the history of the body encourages us to think about the viscera— the matter— of bodies, rather than simply the discourse about them. It forces us to try to write histories about the knitting together of the social and the biological forces that shape our bodies, as well as problematize the subject/object and mind/body divides.
Before our discussion of the readings, I asked students to write responses to the following:
1. Describe your body. Think about its externally visible physical characteristics, invisible characteristics, and its particular needs (to sleep, eat, etc.). Describe the movement of your body.
2. Describe how you feel about your body as a whole. What emotions are associated with particular aspects of your body?
3. What directives or advice have you been given about your body from medical experts, mass cultural sources, teachers, family members, friends?
4. How might this advice have affected the physical form of your body or the way you think/feel about your body?
5. Go back to the first two questions and think about which of the characteristics you described might be predominately affected by your cultural or historical milieu. Which are predominately biological/genetic? Which are a combination of the social and the biological?
6. What are some of the social and historical forces that might have shaped your body or your feelings about it?
Beginning our conversation by focusing on students’ own bodies grounded our conversation of the readings and encouraged students to think about areas that are understudied (ie. the histories of gesture and emotion, the connoisseurship of bodies). Focusing upon our own bodies also encouraged reflection on the field of material culture studies more broadly. We thought of objects that we would call “human-made” that have a significant component of the biological. The form of a wooden chair, for example, is limited by the natural qualities of the material. How do we write in such a way that takes seriously the biological aspects of such objects? Further, our bodies are both subjects and objects. But are not other, more conventional objects, bridging these categories? Don’t computers have a sort of agency? Or, following Michael Pollan, apples? What about objects that make other objects? My hope is that these are the kinds of questions that just may spark a field-changing dissertation by a member of the class.
I use this object (or rather, these raw materials) as a way to get students thinking about the materials everyday things are made of, where they come from, and how they are used. They also serve as a means of getting them to try using multiple senses, not just vision.
I use this object for both undergraduate and graduate students. I think it is suited to anyone who usually deals with finished items, and primarily with their visual aspects, i.e. most people.
I give baggies of fiber to small groups of students, and ask each to tell me whether their material is animal, vegetable, or mineral; what the qualities of the fiber are (hand, shine, strength, elasticity, color… ); and what specific fiber they believe it is. What is striking is the number of students who believe many of the natural fibers are synthetic. While an examination of a finished object allows a deeper exploration of multiple facets of material culture, I keep returning to this assignment because it is of necessity so tactile, and thus moves people away from their comfort zone in the visual and the symbolic.
Hagley Museum and Library
Centennial Glass Vase
The glass vase produced for the Centennial (1876) offers an opportunity to discuss and understand the Centennial as a convergence of technology and the rising national and international marketplace into a consumer spectacle larger than anything experienced on American shores.
This object works when audiences break out into groups and read the artifact in a way to explore technology, consumer culture, patriotic, national and cultural meanings embedded in the object and the event it represents
Robert St. George
University of Pennsylvania
Maine Indian Basket
1. I chose this object because of the mixed possibilities of its origins— very similar baskets are made by all four of the Wabanaki tribes of Maine— the Houlton Band of the Maliseets, Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation. Beginning in the 1860s basketmakers began to decorate baskets with ornamental cut and curl word. According to Gretchen Faulkner, Director of the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine, Orono, three kinds of curl work were executed, and this basket has sharp, tight ones known as porcupine curls. At the same time, almost identcal baskets are since 1975 having a great revival, and Micmac basketmakers on the northeast side of Nova Scotia's Bras D'Or are making ones identical to the Aroostook Micmacs in Maine. (The same can be said of Maliseets still living in New Brunswick). Since the late 1970s many of these baskets are either signed, stamped, or tagged with the names of makers. The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance was established in 1992; the organization works in part to protect natural resources and insure that the brown ash and sweet grass supplies needed to make baskets are protected.
2. This object can help to examine the history and contemporary production of Maine Indian basketmaking, and see how much baskets intended for sale took account of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century wall pockets, bric-a-brac, decorative needlework, and tufting. Many baskets show the fluency and mastery of basketmakers with Anglo-American taste. The baskets is also useful because a wide variety of related forms are made from the same two materials; this example, which likely dates from the 1930s-1950s (based on precisely related examples with histories of ownership); like all baskets made after ca. 1870, this one relies on analine dyes (esp. visible in the green and purple).
3. I have used this object (and related ones, along with a couple of South Caroline coil-built baskets) for both undergrads and graduate students. They are easy for students to handle safely, and they usually take some figuring out, especially as far as the lower curls are concerned. There is nothing like having real things that students can handle and get the feel of in class. I also have requested that the students take pictures of this basket, and present a set of images as interpretive interventions to a class that has the object in front of them while staring at the images.
Note: the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance has a good website. It is also useful to compare the "Victorianization" of the Maine baskets with the same trend visible in the Micmac quillwork boxes, tea cozies, wall pockets, and chair seats applied to factory chairs made in both Toronto and Grand Rapids. For this, Ruth Holmes Whitehead's Micmac Quillwork is the place to start.
Connecticut Humanities Council
Michael Graves’ Teakettle for Target Stores
Reason for choosing this object:
Several years ago, I was asked to write a brief essay on a “design thing” for a reader in design studies. The essay was “to exemplify the particular ‘design thing’” and “to demonstrate the level of detail and complexity that is required to understand the artificial or designed world.” I chose architect Michael Graves’ 2002 teakettle for the discount department store Target.
The teakettle, usually found on the back burner of the kitchen fire (open and closed), has been a mainstay in American homes for several centuries. Even as hot-water dispensers and microwave ovens offer Americans quicker means to heat water, teakettle sales remain a mainstay in housewares, and the designs of this kitchen tool are many and ever-changing. The teakettle was and is utilitarian, decorative, and culturally symbolic, and with this particular object I could also discuss the late-twentieth-century interest in design in North America.
Audience and suitability:
The intended audiences for this study are undergraduate and graduate students in design studies, art, architecture, and material culture. I have found in my teaching that students engage more with contemporary objects, and in this instance I was able to connect, through the 1705 origin of the word teakettle, eighteenth-century silver and ceramic designs for tea-service kettles and teapots to the modern teakettle on the back burner.
Role in interpretive activity:
Students in my classroom could examine what makes a design “work” or “fail” (through materials, style, and use), what aspects of an object reflect continuity and what aspects reflect change, and how design sells mass-produced domestic goods—in this case, the Michael Graves “generational” designs for Target. Graves’s design for Target was based on his 1985 teakettle design for the high-end Italian design firm Alessi, and this allows for (among other issues) a consideration of contemporary product design, industrial production, advertising, and consumption.
Delaware Art Museum
Why did you choose this object? The responses to the questions framed around this object not only provide students with an opportunity to share the significance this object has in their daily life, but also challenges them to consider what their life would be like without it (and the objects that accompany it).
What audience do you address in using this object and why is it
particularly suited to them? I use this object for grades 4-12; I find that the students are able to see how this object reflects our culture (one of immediacy).
How can this object anchor a good interpretive activity in a classroom,
museum gallery, or other site? I like to use this object as a way for students to better understand the importance of illustration at the turn of the 20th century.
Bard Graduate Center
University of Delaware
Duchamp's urinal- called "fountain"
-It is said that before Duchamp the question was "is it good art", and after
the readymade "is it art". This may not be a good thing, but I think, viewed
from the proper state of mind, that Duchamp was trying to make us aware of the
objects around us that we take for granted and that we do not "see" because
they are not granted the status of art. Through this simple act he was able to
use what might be considered a base object to discuss value, and how it is
interpreted through institutions vs, individuals and through language vs. the
senses. That is a lot to do by moving a urinal from a plumbing supply to a
pedestal, especially since the piece was never actually exhibited and exists
only through photographs (longer story for another time)
-Contemporary creators who exponentially face the conditions that Duchamp was
beginning to wonder about a century ago. Anyone who is interested in
interpreting aesthetic experiences.
-This anchors a discussion because it is open to far-reaching interpretation.
Its literal "empty-vessel" status, like the smiley-face, allows the audience to
use it as a way to ground their own views, in this case, on art, the purpose of
the artist, craft, industrial objects, museums, class and on.
Library, Academic Programs, and Collections Management Division
Academic Programs Department
Consortium on American Material Culture 2010
Electronic Presentation of Research
Friday, May 7, 2010
Attending: J. Ritchie Garrison, presiding; David Jaffee, Bernie Herman, Will Scott, Fath Ruffins, Linda Driskill, Rob Emlen, Rosemary T. Krill, L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin, Marla Miller, Jessica Sewell; Shirley T. Wajda.
Introductory questions: What new opportunities for teaching and learning does new media provide? How did the new media projects facilitate new forms of writing? Does new media help with the problem that conventional modes of representing scholarship privileges sight and hearing?
• Group was interested in new media projects, especially as means of conveying sensory experiences with materials. They suggested that this potential was not yet realized.
• Group questioned use of new media projects in developing an argument or a thesis, but some suggested that these projects could help students develop better analytical/writing skills.
• Members firmly supported experiential learning, ‘getting out of the classroom,’ and the kinds of experience that could be usefully documented by new media projects.
• Presenter David Jaffee urged members to use user-friendly, widely available software, and to consider carefully the students’ current skill levels/goal skill levels in a particular assignment. How much technical knowledge do students have, how varied are their skill levels coming in, and how much technical knowledge is demanded by the assignment?
Minutes of Discussions:
BH/DJ: Description of project for Bard Graduate Center course in material culture methods, taught by Catherine Whalen. Facilitated by David, Bernie, with the help of Molly O’Neil, a chef and food writer.
Fish project was established to attempt to engage all senses in equal measure and to attempt to teach students/have students learn about “synesthetic modes of engagement.” (Question from scribe-RTK: is that encouraging ourselves and students to express a reaction to a sensory stimulus in words that are subjective and involve a different sensory input?). BH mentioned the need to teach alternative modes of representing visual and aural, the need to express other senses. He suggested that the project did not resolve the issue of synesthetic representation, did not convey the sensation of slipping hand into the cold guts of fish. He suggested that this required more creative imaginations on the part of the participants, rather than differing technologies of presentation. “Problem may be limits of our imagination, rather than the new media.”
Logistics of fish project involved trip to Fulton Fish Market with flip cameras and digital recorders (?). Students edited raw material, chose the mode of presentation.
DJ described this project as part of Catherine Whelan’s material culture studies and methods class. It was incorporated at later stage, and there were questions from the students about the appropriateness of a media project for the course. There was a course blog with conversations about what was going to happen. Bernie and Molly attended some classes. Bernie, Molly and Catherine assigned readings about fisheries/processes/distribution/cookery. There were readings about American studies theory. Within the confines of regular course, students had a lot of latitude in their projects with relatively little technical demand.
Products included an iMovie from one group, a Prezi presentation from another group (http://prezi.com/), and a wiki from a third. Students chose those modes of expression, as well as the content.
DJ described the new media lab at BGC that lab had just been opened in September. This was a project that was developed quickly to discover how new media works into a course/program. What’s fair? What’s doable? What’s worthwhile? It was very open ended and required ‘buy in’ from students and instructor.
BH noted that the projects were successful. The students were encouraged to think with new perspectives about what an object/artifact was. The students were encouraged to query at what point the fish exists in a critical domain. They kept pushing the boundary. Students and teachers queried where where critical approaches come from? Do they come from the object? What other perspectives need be applied? Those from anatomy, natural history?
SW asked if new media awards were given to students. .
DJ showed the iMovie that resulted from course. Movie showed trip to Fulton Fish market, somewhat tentative/sour/skeptical faces and comments of the workers and students, skilled hands of workers and Molly. We saw Molly and the students sautéing aromatics, shelling shrimp. Students learned about using parts of fish perhaps previously disregarded and the importance of use/disposal.
DJ showed the Prezi presentation, an image containing ‘hot spots’ with embedded information about objects, music, video footage, organized around themes.
DJ suggested issue of documenting sources in these presentations; mentioned importance of incorporating source page. He mentioned issue of permissions for content and encouraging students to give time/effort to this, if these presentations need to have a use beyond in-class presentations. He mentioned the ‘negotiation’ about using academic language in a public presentation.
FR questioned how the argument was presented. In written presentations, writer presents an argument. It would be hard to present a point of view or an argument, other than descriptive. In a museum setting, these presentations would be a great way to encourage visitors to access info. In terms of training scholars, how can new media be used in a way that is related to constructing an argument.
The issue of constructing/communicating an argument in this assignment generated discussion. WS asked if we emphasize the argument in other settings and suggested maybe we don’t. BH told about a quilt project. Students argued that they would like to make quilt. The project forced students to think about alternative modes of writing (presenting?) as a way to present an argument. One group made an authentic quilt; one, an inauthentic quilt. One group dealt with self-censorship. DJ reminded us that in Catherine’s syllabus, there are writing assignments. For the blog, students did research. It was an American studies methods course. They were exploring different modes of analysis.
LD suggested that there are different levels at which an argument can be obvious. In Prezi home page, which objects are going to have elaboration or in Prezi’s words ‘depth’? Students need to understand the ways in which they are presenting arguments with the new media. We don’t have a rhetoric that makes this evident to the students.
SW spoke from her experience teaching at Kent State, over the last decade. Tendency for students to think that a picture of the object is the same thing as the ‘shoe.’ She suggested that for the undergrad students that she teaches, new media projects may get them to think and engage with objects that will help them write in new ways. Getting students to record their authentic experience helps them to understand and learn.
RG spoke about relating new media pedagogy to curriculum. The journey to the argument can be long and tortuous. Referenced his course about in craftsmanship, in which he tries to recreate the experience. Centerpiece of course is field trip to Colonial Williamsburg. As an example, he showed a piece of bloomery iron produced by Wmsburg iron workers. Students watched smiths produce bloomery iron and then watched them hammer. Students saw five workers take a half day to make a piece of iron as big as a large carrot. His goal was getting students to engage in sensory experience of producing
Several mentioned the need to encourage students to think about relationship of process, tactility, material, production, economic history. They referenced Bruno Latour’s work about networking (.http://www.bruno-latour.fr/.)
RM described media design center at UD’s Morris Library, and the importance of thinking about the resources for faculty-designed projects. She gave an example of a geography professor who was challenged to structure class so that there was a technical team, production team, etc. Some use institutional resources; other groups on campus decide to do projects on their own.
LD described a mechanical engineer at NASA who is designing an application that transmits what is felt remotely, transmits the heft, the feel. One use is medical, to diagnose illnesses in workers stationed, say, in Antarctica. “You would not want to do this for everything, but there are some things that are difficult to duplicate in Tempe, AZ.”
RM suggested that in the fish film, it would have been useful to show the facial expressions, the breathing the mouth watering, in order to emphasize sensory communication. Another participant mentioned using the film ‘methods’ of food and cooking programs, which do have some standard filming techniques that convey sensory experience.
JG suggested that the film itself is a critical point of view, and RW, that you may be able to imply the experience.
SW said that students still have to be curious to engage in discovery. She finds a standard research paper less than useful. If students work toward a set of questions, they succeed, even if they don’t arrive at the way scholars ‘want’ them to think yet.
FR suggested that we think about different levels of students. Discovery might be important for a certain level. The presentations caused her to think that there are experiences that students need to discover in grad school that many of us learned much earlier, in the course of ‘life.’ The Williamsburg experience helps students understand slavery. The question is, “Why did you need so many people to make this product?” Students can discover a work process that is almost wholly gone.
DJ brought up the issues of audience. The students are thinking about public audiences. Important to think about how to translate learning and skills to a broader audience.
WS spoke from his years of teaching middle school. He used the discovery process to give students access. His students used cameras, interviews and tactile processes to discover. The end process was analytic essay. For grad students, maybe we have to do the reverse. Maybe we have to “unlearn the analytic.”
JS suggested that we back away from analytics. Are we interrupting what the students think they know? Make something unfamiliar in order to make it familiar again.
SW gave an example of a research project on men’s ties. Student had trouble conceiving the project; didn’t know what was a scholarly source. Through a family connection, student spoke to a cousin who was a model for Italian Vogue and talked for two hours to Lisa Minnelli. This changed her pathway through the course, and she learned about research.
RM asked if this project had a public presence. DJ said that some projects were shown to family. He suggested the curricular and programmatic issues. As head of new media research, he found it important to broaden the conversation and the tools. He suggested that they were giving the students ‘toolkits,’ for interpretation, not a course in how to use a software package. He mentioned the importance, in his program, of hiring a new media lab head with a Ph. D. in educational use of new media. New media lab head is expert in scholarly languages. DJ urged us to think about using fairly easy software packages in courses, such as Google SketchUp in an exhibition design course. He suggested that students do recognize importance of these toolkits. Students saw this as a powerful project, but they had limited time and energy. As faculty we have to think about how many resources to devote to new media. We need to keep projects low end, so that entry costs for students are not high.
WS said that the power of the new media in using it as a toolkit. If you start with object, you begin to develop theoretical tools. A conventional paper would not have captured some of the experience.
DJ mentioned that there is a sizable literature about databases. He noted that the faculty at Bard are aware that they are working in a design school, and it is important for students to thing about design (of a database to capture artifact information?)
BH called “Fish” a beta project. He would like to do it again. Grounding the project in electronic technology revealed that students need to read basic phenomenology, basic ethnography, basic linguistics to help them frame the project. A focused core critical bibliography needed. It must be more apparent to the students that developing a thesis is the critical goal. BH asked if new media can engage the full range of senses. For Catherine and him, it was like a new world. This is anything but a dead end. Limits were in the collective imagination.
WS asked BH to speak more about what he meant by his points.
BH expanded his comments to say that the limits of imagination are often unarticulated systems of values and beliefs. He referenced the introduction to “Practices of Looking”; “The act of looking is an ideological practice.” We don’t articulate the nature of the ideologies, nor do we critique them. By remaining unarticulated, this tends to construct another position: “How do we privilege taste, touch, and smell, in the context of the visual and aural?” The questions proceeds form a presumed hierarchy of senses, which has been around since before the Renaissance. (Did Bernie say that the project, faculty and students were starting in the wrong place, as subscribers to a critical position? He mentioned that they were starting not by interrogating the position but by accepting it.)
JS noted the different pedagogical techniques for different bodies of students. She described the “City Section” course at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. Students were given a small urban space and applied various other kinds of projects to this space (film, wiki). Students were very wary of words. For this cadre of students, assignments that included drawing, sounds, etc., gave them an opportunity to articulate critical ideas about their issues. Using multiple media gave students other ways of exploring ideas. New media might tap into their own modes of thinking that might allow them to, in the end, write better papers.
DJ noted other genres, such as podcasts, digital exhibitions. Some of these things are easier to envision at different levels. It is not necessary to create tools ‘from scratch.’ For example, Wiki or Omega, an open source exhibition design software. It is necessary to set up software. George Mason University is wiling to host software for small museums. DJ emphasized that he was focused on conceptualization of project. His students did focus on both images and text.
WS noted that a lot of new media results in a more disembodied experience in the world, but here we are using the new media to get at sensory experiences. There is a kind of irony. Shopping online is different from experience of going into a store.
SW asked if any of the students considered works of fiction. She noted passages in The Sun Also Rises about fishing. Shed said that fiction doesn’t give the sense of these presentations. These presentations are more visceral.
Photography history was mentioned. There are examples of ‘tourists’ photographing processes and engaging in reveries about authentic experience. The suggestions was made about revisiting how people experience through the lens of a camera
RJM said that an important thing about new media is that, even if you are not considering a public component, the project can allow a public response. Word clouds were mentioned. If Prize had an input opportunity for the viewers, you might see the data ‘sliding around.’
10:47: Five minute break
FR brought up the model of interactive stations in science exhibitions. She cited an instance at the Smithsonian in which someone wanted to do something like that for objects. The project fell apart. No one could figure out how to teach about objects that wasn’t old style connoisseurship. Curators didn’t like it because visitors didn’t learn very much. If you had actual objects in conjunction with these efforts, you could begin to do something that would be appealing in a museum setting. It would be interesting to apply these ideas of pedagogy to informal learning settings. She commented that you can use public visitors as sources about objects, for information that you don’t already know.
FR mentioned the issue of co-crated exhibitions with visitors. She asked what would be the filter for the Smithsonian’s voice of authority. She asked what would be the best format to be more playful about the voice.
RG mentioned that this was opening up new ways of seeing things.
WS said that we were raising the “big academic question” about use and reception. We’re not sure how to research and write about it. How do we know how these objects are being used and received? This is an opportunity for research as well as pedagogy.
An attendee asked DJ and BH to talk about using these techniques to access non-living informants. How can we use these technologies to talk about engagement more distant in time?
DJ talked about a project about stereography. A student mined digital gallery at NY Public Library. Some archives have been moved to Flickr. More resources are available digitally.
M? Noted that the project still prioritizes visual. How can we use mapping?
DJ spoke about using geo mapping. It was possible to ‘layer on’ various maps and locations. He referenced the Manhatta project of the Museum of the City of New York. DJ said that we have a heterogeneous students body in terms of comfort and knowledge of technology. What can you do best with new media? We don’t want to make it a bad version of something else.
JS said that the new media techniques can present different kinds of info non-linearly and non-hierarchically.
SW spoke about imagining the ‘waste of the world’ to be elements. In terms of historical sensibility, maybe we don’t start with object but with constitutive elements.
FR suggested that we look at how the objects connect with larger systems. She spoke about a research fellow who was interested in ivory. S/He asked what you had to do in order to make pianos. Example of a company in CT that was one of the major suppliers of ivory in the U. S. in the mid-19th century. The point is that if one is in the new media lab, students could start with an object and take people through a process that leads to an understanding of global trade or colonialism. In a well-designed activity in 10-20 minutes, you could learn something that you never imagined about pianos.
BH mentioned Rebecca Stott and an MFK Fisher essay called “Consider the Oyster.”
He is very interested in how to teach material culture in the complete absence of objects. There are no objects for some studies except underground. Bernie is returning to text, to court records. He is interested in the ways in which people deployed objects in terms of truthfulness. How does the linguistic presentation of things operate in the mind of the period? He mentioned a court record about a Dutch boy found dead in a field where he is sent to be a scarecrow. Questions of translation. Default is to turn to object. The question is the centrality of materials for human experience.
Ritchie: It is important to gain some “take-aways” to share with other groups in the classroom. It is important to remember all the publics we are trying to involve in the conversation.
The following were suggested at the ‘Big Ideas’:
ED noted that it was important to ‘light a fire.’ Give students a perspective that they can carry forward. Recognize and celebrate small victories.
DJ emphasized the importance of collaboration. Why is the research paper not the only product? New media forces us to be more collaborative. It mirrors real world environments and is very powerful.
Someone emphasized the importance of recognizing privileging the sense of sight. The importance of field-based or experiential learning; the need to get out of the classroom.
JS noted the importance of moving out of reading/writing/lecturing mode and the importance of modes that have multi-sensory components.
FR mentioned the importance of students participating.
SW noted the importance of sharing authority as the ‘teacher.’ There may be temporary alternative mentors, other than the teacher.
FR suggested the need to recognize and value experience and knowledge and power of the ‘ordinary’ person.
WS noted the centrality of materiality to human experience. He said that when you start from that position, you end up dissolving pre-conceived notions. “Follow the ivory” and your story about piano becomes a story of forced labor and trade. Things become linked in a way that we often keep analytically separate. New media can create networks that are different from ways that we conceive of things through a written paper.
DJ said that hyperlinks are intellectual connections.
FR noted that surveys in museums discover that people under 30 want to come to the museum and do their own curation. Importance of recognizing this way that our audience is using the museum. Importance of the opportunity for people to create their own museum experience. Museum needs to adapt to visitors.
LD spoke about the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which hosts 600,000 students every year. Room simulates space craft command center. Students learn certain processes and skills; their team goes into the command center and learns to deploy these skills. We could take objects and make situations so that people have tools to make judgments, solve problems.
RJM said that the interactive characteristic of new media provides greatest potential.
BH mentioned the history of lunarians and discovery of telescope and recommended tying history to science.
Ritchie as all attending to ‘vote’ on the most important big idea for their pedagogy, and the majority supported the idea of ‘getting out of the classroom and doing field-based learning.’
Rosemary T. Krill 6/7/10
Material Culture Pedagogy, Saturday Session, Group C
Debby Andrews, Wendy Bellion, Linda Eaton, Kasey Greer, Kathleen Foster, Ethan Lasser, Ann Smart Martin, Lu Ann De Cunzo, Robert St. George, Lance Winn, Lily Milroy, Courtney Waring, Terry Snyder, Reggie Blaszcsyk, Julie McGee
Notes taken by Arwen Mohun
Debby made Lance recap the coffee cup discussion from yesterday. He said what he remembered was a discussion about the greek iconography, how iconography gets transformed. Origin of the aperture on the top of the mug was originally made by truckers who would cut a hole in the top of plastic lids.
Kasey: We don’t talk enough about humor in objects.
Lily: brings up the issue of the maker: where does the humor come from? Tradition in cartography of putting a mistake into every map.
Linda: humor is hard. Winterthur currently has an exhibit on toilet humor and humorous objects related to toilets, “Where they went.” They are waiting for someone to complain.
Debby reminds us Lance’s object is Duchamp’s urinal. Lance says Duchamp understood humor. Great chapter in ?
Arwen: questions the use of the term “maker”, thinks it should be “designer” to make the point that workers actually make these objects. Important in a postindustrial age to remind students that there are people make
Kasey: [example of a film on Mardi Gras Beads that “restores the commodity chains”] Object like Bob’s chair seems easier to understand in terms of commodity chains because the craftsmanship is visually obvious and understandable, whereas coffee cup is less transparent.
Lily: hopes her students will learn “nothing is new.” Objects have genealogies. Recalls Kasey’s strategy of presenting both synachronic and diachronic ways of thinking about objects [across time and type/variety]
Kasey: We are so facile with the process of analysis that we have trouble breaking down the process for students so that they can learn how to do it.
Ethan: Early American objects we understand a lot about commodity chains, but much less about use. He was trained in a visual arts program which privileged seeing. Vocabulary of the embodied experience of objects beyond seeing. How do you balance conservation issue with ways of knowing.
Arwen: importance of doing to understand… [sewing exercise]
Wendy: Reminds students that seeing is historically constructed. She has students make tubes of paper and look through them at paintings to understand monocular ways of looking at paintings.
Lance: The large classroom is a teaching tool in and of itself. Classroom fixed chairs force students to look forward, but students also resist the politicization of the body by twisting around etc.
Ethan: Need to think of another way to position students.
Lily: use of humor, Monty Python “The Comfy Chair”
Debby: Asks the museum folks to talk about what they do.
Linda: She teaches a very narrow topic, relies on others to give context. Shows objects, lets people touch them (which is crucial in understanding textiles), and tries to convince them that there are questions to be asked, shows them the range of questions they might ask, creative part of research.
Kasey: Exercise related to an exhibit on comfort. She made a video of her sitting in a chair with and without a corset. In the gallery, they had a corset that could be snapped on and a reproduction chair, people could try sitting with and without the corset. Then said “now you know how to interpret this picture.” It was very popular, cheap. People liked to do it with their kids.
Lily: V&A interactive galleries installed about ten years ago. Lots of activities similar to the corset exercise.
Kasey: exercises also slow visitors down.
Linda: Drexel is trying to design a second life program in which people can virtually try on Civil War era clothing.
Lance: Smithsonian is scanning objects in 3-D
Linda: Winterthur exhibit using stereo slides, visitors with.
Kathleen: Worried that the virtual experience doesn’t serve the purpose of introducing visitors to the embodied experience of the past. Galleries in V&A generally empty.
Linda: huge majority of visitors blast through galleries.
Arwen: reconnect classroom and museum, visitors don’t know how to look at exhibits
Courtney: scavenger hunts are a pet peeve. Smithsonian has a different strategy….
Use of sketching as a way to slow down visitors so that they’ll look more carefully, stay in front of works of art longer.
Wendy: Admits to being a scavenger hunt mom, but uses it as a starting pointing by asking kids to look for specific elements.
Courtney: uses a remote control.
Lily: Are students still passing the remote around carefully because they are in a museum.
Lu Ann: still valuable to make the point that the same object can have different meanings depending on the context.
Julie: Can also reintroduce the theme of makers. Went to the international slavery museum, very difficult to capture the experience of slavery with objects.
Debby: Using objects to capture the narratives embedded in them.
Julie: Museum did the job of introducing a history, was well attended.
Debby: Changing curatorial approach so that objects tell stories
Ethan: Galleries are organized around anthropological themes: power, sex, death—applied to colonial America.
Wendy: With graduate students, does an exercise in which students look at the back of paintings—says something very different about the history of paintings. Goals: Wants them to think about paintings as material objects (particularly important in an era when so much art is experienced virtually); what is the stuff that goes into the making of paintings; simple knowledge: what do you need to know to do your job responsibly; read a lot of theory in graduate school but didn’t have the opportunity to “wrestle with objects.”
Debby: open art conservation lab does some of this for the public.
Bob: Struck by Ethan’s comment that he wants visitors visions to shift. Part of teaching is “unlearning”—detaching people from their assumption; then there is the teaching about material culture as a discipline; change how students understand history. Little worried about the “objects tell stories” idea. People tell stories. One step closer to subsuming objects to narrative. Objects can function as a real challenge to text based, other ways of understanding history….what would the commodity chain of memory look like?…We’re between coffee cups and Eakins, anecdotes and myth. He’d be more inclined to teach the Eakins because there’s more depth, content there to teach.
Arwen: coffee cup is the white zinfandel of material culture pedagogy.
Reggie: Thinks we should be doing more discussions with students about electronic gadgets that are so important to their lives.
Linda: Intros theme of whether electricity is an object.
Lance: Fetishistic characteristics of the I-pod, what they managed to figure out is the fetishizing the interface.
Arwen: Very hard to get students to think about the power relationship embedded in electronic objects, not a gateway object like the coffee cup, very hard to get them to unlearn what they think they know.
Lance: papers on social networking technologies not very successful in getting students to think critically about the semiotics.
Kasey: goal of education “double mindedness”….
Lu Ann: Part of the power theme is about ethics, how objects were used to control, enslave; who has the power to use objects to interpret the past.
Linda: Also power of choosing which objects will be privileged…
Lu Ann: American Society of Archeology publishes case studies of ethical problems, device to get people to understand complexities of different groups claims on particular objects. Discussions framed in a way that assumes that these discussions are only relevant to native Americans, few other groups.
Debby: reminds us of recent controversy over Pima Indian DNA.
Lance: interesting to think about these issues in terms of studio art, linking of power and…mystery and knowledge. Museum practices are about the constant accretion of knowledge, knowing better and better. Thinks important to retain mystery, think about what we don’t know. Allows us to be anxious without killing each other.
Wendy: Some museums resist the label as a means for contextualizing art.
Kathleen: But those are high modern objects that are created out of an ideology of inclusiveness. Doesn’t work for other kinds of art objects.
Wendy: Noticed that everyone chose objects rather than spaces.
Lily: Penn Square project: spaces delegated for certain kinds of behavior. How do you know how to behave in particular kinds of spaces? Natural organisms in spaces mean they are constantly changing. What of the challenges of working in cultural landscapes is learning about trees.
Lu Ann: likes to think about parks as places where people construct the relationship between nature and culture.
Bob: In response to Lu Ann’s call to pay attention to ethics. Collaboration with subjects/alternate observers in creating exhibits.
Arwen: Use electronic gadgets to get at doublemindedness, who is right. Have students interpret an object exactly the way they’d like to and then how they think they should for academic purpose, then ask who’s right?
Lily: Ethical responsibilities of universities for taking care of objects in their collections.
Linda: Interesting in the fetishization of preserving objects forever.
Debby: One other point about ethics: effect that art historian students can have on the art market in their selection of dissertation topic.
Kathleen: What we do with object is not innocent.