Sep. 27, 2006

Objects That Speak

In his article “The History of Technology and the Study of Material Culture,” Carroll W. Pursell Jr. asks whether material culture tells its own story or whether material culture is used to tell a different story.(1) My immediate response upon reading this question was that material culture passed down to historians should tell solely its own story. Just as a historian should not force printed evidence into his or her argument in an essay, neither should a museum curator place a particular item into an exhibit simply because the object fits the context of the larger exhibit. For example, in an essay describing Newfoundland’s entrance into Confederation, an author would not discuss Joseph Smallwood’s eating habits unless this information contributed to the argument. Likewise, a curator of an exhibit on the weapons used in the Vietnam War would not place any gun or missile from the period into the exhibit unless it had a specific connection to the events that took place in Vietnam.

Upon further consideration of this question though, I revised my opinion. Material culture should tell its own story; however, such artifacts can contribute to a larger narrative if the context of each artifact’s story is understood. One of the interesting parts of going to a museum is seeing leftover objects from past events, and it is fascinating to discover where such artifacts came from, how they were used, and how they made their way into a museum. Nevertheless, the stories of individual artifacts can be woven together to develop an overarching account of a particular period or theme.

Pursell’s question seems particularly pertinent since our class went to Museum London today to learn more about the “Innovations and Inventions” exhibit that we will be creating this winter. From our conversation with the historical curator, we discovered that we will be responsible for the bulk of the factual content and creative effort that goes into creating an exhibit. Might it be possible to include the provenance and story of the items we are putting on display? Perhaps it would be interesting to discuss particular inventions’ success (or failure), utility, or the company (or individual) that created or produced a particular invention.

If every artifact has its own story, how does one let that story be told, while also presenting a grander narrative, while also presenting this information in a way that challenges patrons to draw their own conclusions about the historical information they are receiving? That will be one of the major questions that I will be trying to answer through this process.

1 – Carroll W. Pursell Jr., “The History of Technology and the Study of Material Culture,” in Material Culture: A Research Guide (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985), p.118.