The (extra)ordinary, the personal and the universal in material culture

Dr. Alexi Baker is the convenor of the conference Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition and a Mellon/Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

When going through the difficult process of paring down the paper proposals for Objects in Motion to just three days’ worth, I chose subjects which would be of interest to a wider audience as well as to me  and aimed for diversity of topics, speakers and methodologies. The conference’s theme is of importance across all manner of fields worldwide, both as a focus in and of itself and as a tool for exploration and expression. Conducting a dialogue across this great diversity of arenas will allow academics, curators and artists to consider and possibly to learn from their fellows’ approaches and knowledge sets – in addition to being fascinating.

Despite aiming for diversity of topics and speakers, many resonances also arose among the paper proposals and my final selections. Some were between papers looking at similar topics from different angles: for example John P. McCarthy speaking about historic African American cemeteries and Dana E. Byrd discussing the Civil War plantation piano, or Emma Martin on colonial transformations of Tibetan book covers and Katharina Nordhofen on Byzantine ivories being turned into Ottonian book covers.

13th-century wooden Tibetan book cover depicting the Buddha Shakyamuni on the night of his enlightenment. Credit: Wikimedia / Walters Art Museum.

13th-century wooden Tibetan book cover depicting the Buddha Shakyamuni on the night of his enlightenment. Credit: Wikimedia / Walters Art Museum.

Other resonances reflect trends across material culture studies. Textiles and clothing made a strong showing among both the proposed and selected papers and artwork. This reflects the importance of textiles across cultures in both utilitarian and symbolic senses, as well as how in many cases they tie into the study of the everyday or of women’s work. Over time, textiles and clothing styles can easily adopt changing meanings within the context of cultural heritage and/or politics and nationalism as well. At the conference, Katie Hickerson will be discussing the Mahdist Jibba, Stephanie Bunn felt textiles in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, and Christina Williamson an Inuit parka.

19th-century cotton and wool tunic known as a Jibba, associated with the Mahdi of Sudan. Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum.

19th-century cotton and wool tunic known as a Jibba, associated with the Mahdi of Sudan. Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum.

Another common theme which emerged among proposals and papers was everyday material culture, as in the case of some textiles. In many instances, this theme focused on the transformation from “ordinary” to “extraordinary” through transitions of time, place and/or context. Sometimes the transition occurred through the European ethnographic collection of everyday (as well as ceremonial and tourist trade) objects from outside Europe. This is referenced in a number of the conference talks and in the art of Chris McHugh and the film by Jade Gibson. In other instances, the everyday became the unique through its survival (as with the simple ash impression from Pompeii addressed in the film La Nuvola e Issìone) or was used as fodder for creating objects of unique importance (as with the everyday objects among John McCarthy’s African American grave goods – much like early modern Foundling and love tokens).

Early modern identification tokens left with children at the Foundling Hospital in London, transformed from everyday objects such as coins and thimbles. Credit: Foundling Museum.

Early modern identification tokens left with children at the Foundling Hospital in London, transformed from everyday objects such as coins and thimbles. Credit: Foundling Museum.

Material culture ranges from these most intensely personal of objects to the civic and communal. There are the personal treasures memorialized by Jane Watt’s Cabinet of Curiositiesand the characterful family doodles dramatized by Danny Braverman in Wot? No Fish!!. At the other other end of the spectrum, there are objects and entire environments which have broader communal identities and existences as well as a multitude of personal significances and uses.

This encompasses all aspects of the built environment, including its incorporation of objects from other contexts – as with Gabriella Cirucci‘s Roman reuse of Greek gravestones, or the adoption of historical and non-European objects and architecture into Tim Knox‘s country houses. It also encompasses the diverse material elements which make up entire buildings or cities, and how those assemblages as a whole can transition. Examples include Nazneen Ahmed‘s Church of St Thomas the Apostle and Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Hindu Temple in London, and Barbara Garrie and Rosie Ibbotson‘s discussion of post-earthquake Christchurch in New Zealand.

Festival at Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple in Ealing, London. Credit: Tamil Guardian.

Festival at Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple in Ealing, London. Credit: Tamil Guardian.

Similarly, there can be collisions between the intended meanings of material culture and its actual uses and interpretations, as it transitions between contexts. This is a frequent element of the material culture of historical and modern science, medicine and technology. Technologies and treatments, plus their associated ideas and techniques, may have been invented with one use or type of performance in mind. However, “universality” is almost always derailed by either the challenges of different cultural and environmental contexts (as with Dora Vargha‘s discussion of global polio vaccination) or by individual user applications (as with Claire Sabel’s nineteenth-century “colorimeters”).

1955 newspaper headlines about Jonas Salk's breakthrough with the first successful inactivated polio vaccine. Credit: Wikipedia.

1955 newspaper headlines about Jonas Salk’s breakthrough with the first successful inactivated polio vaccine. Credit: Wikipedia.

As you can see, convening Objects has meant an embarrassment of riches: I received so many interesting proposals from diverse academic and artistic genres, that I only wished I could stage a week-long conference!

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