More tangible things

Week 2 of  Tangible Things (@tangiblethings | Facebook) considers the value of stopping to look at things around you, specifically A toga in the archive, exploring clothing and contemporary political, economic and social phenomena, and John Harvard’s toe:

Just looking is never enough. Question what you see.  Questions about John Harvard’s statue take us many directions—to art, to early American history, and to the Houghton Library. The John Harvard statue also invites us to look at how the meaning of a person or an event changes over time. His memorial was created nearly 250 years after his death, raising the question of what aspects of his life were being remembered and what was being forgotten.

John Harvard’s statue helps us to consider the difference between history and what scholars call “memory,” or the ways in which people memorialize the past.  Memorials acquire new meanings from the ways history is remembered, imagined, or forgotten over time.

Find a memorial, monument or statue in your own area. Consider when it was made, what it commemorates, and how it has changed over time. In what ways is its history like and unlike that of the John Harvard statue? If you can, include an image.

Here’s my post on memorials.

Week 3! Looks at some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce and define culture.

Given up on the social side – feels anonymous and impersonal. Needs curating.

First, a look at collections organised around a specific person or a place (see also Placing the author). Such things may seem personal and local, but can also lead to broader themes. Points from the vid:

  • room interpreted (sic) as a bedroom although it was a dairy
  • layering of different histories – what’s left out?

Memory making:

That’s what a good memory maker does. You don’t see the labor that goes into creating it. And it’s pieces of the past, fragments of the past, bits of oral tradition, artifacts, documents that they pieced together so patiently. And by looking closely, we can trace some of those fissures and cracks, and we can begin to understand that history in a much deeper way beyond just the memory.

Exercises:

  • describe an object; what aspects of family history may have been forgotten?
  • often the achievements of male inhabitants are highlighted rather than that of the women who preserved the house or persons of color who labored there or contributed to the family’s possessions – select a museum or historical site in your own area and consider whether it too might contain evidence ‘hidden in plain sight’

Next up, the museum in a box, used in American schools in the 19th century to teach children about “useful things”:

It appears systematic, but on close examination we discover the impossibility of confining any group of objects to just one story, to just one category.

Which appears to be the message of the MOOC so far. The discussion question: Choose a museum that you have visited. What were its objectives? How do those goals influence the organization and display of objects?

The museum in a box is related to world fairs and the categorisation of knowledge. Hence the exercise is to create a modern day drawer for the box, on Pinterest or Dropbox.

Week 4 considers methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking. This  sounds interesting and has big crossovers with librarianship, however I’m off on holiday so will need to run through the last two weeks double quick on return.

First up, how anthropology museums have confronted the ways their own collections reflect the conquest of native peoples, then a look at how natural history collections are conventionally organised around material attributes. The team has been involved in connecting objects to things from other kinds of collections in order to situate them in human history, and in adding ‘guest objects’ to three popular galleries.

  • If you had the opportunity to add a ‘guest object” to each of the three galleries that we examined, what would you choose? If possible select things with which you have direct experience and explain how they might alter, enlarge, or disrupt the meaning of the current exhibits.
  • If you were to create a museum, what would it be about and how would you organize it?

Week 5 looks at organising collections by broad theme rather than through traditional taxonomic categories, allowing us to see new meanings and new connections. The Time and Time Again exhibit moved beyond conventional museum boundaries to bring a variety of objects together around a single theme, showing the complexity of something as fundamental to human experience as time:

  • Find and list at least three time-keeping strategies or devices in your own environment that are not included in the Time and Time Again catalog
  • Consider the different ways you experience time. Which are more culturally influenced and which are more biologically rooted?

An early 2oth century sewing machine showed the impossibility of containing the meaning of a single object in just one collection – almost any object can connect aspects of the past that often seem unconnected, and even an ‘ordinary’ object can open up multiple ways of understanding the world and the people in it. There’s an awful lot of stuff on sewing machines, where I was looking for some sort of conclusion. The content was fine, but it didn’t really go anywhere and there was little theoretical background. Plus it was really really American. Maybe the team were present in the discussions, but the absence of any form of weekly wrap-up or any email contact meant the whole thing feel very anonymous.

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