Museum objects are living gods and goddesses. Lords and Ladies of the material world. Most usually donning white cotton (or purple nitrile) gloves the curator is able to undertake her calling as high priest and footman. It’s vital museum purity laws are adhered to. Contamination of the museum object by greasy palm or sticky fingers or unappointed non-curators results in the need for complex ritual cleaning and prayers involving Pygmy goat-hair brushes and holy distilled water and liturgical implements too numerous to list here that you wouldn’t understand anyway.
The accession number imposes order on chaos. It turns a gaggle of tat into a collection and is a museum object’s status symbol.
The birth certificate of the museum object, its proof of purchase. The entry form marks the start of an artefact’s rite of passage from prop, trinket or reject to sacred relic on a mission.
Moths and other creepy pests are The Enemy of the curator (unless they are already dead and desirable specimens, pinned and catalogued). If you see a furrowed brow and haunted look, a struggle with sticky pheromone-fueled patches, spare a thought. We are saving museums from the very real peril of textiles and taxidermy annihilation. No one wants to see a naval rating’s uniform with holes in its unmentionables.
The art of a well-tempered label is a museum’s greatest gift to humanity. As selector and interpreter, the label is an opportunity for the curator to display her prowess. Curators believe in facts not opinions. The label contains up to 50 learned words. One idea per sentence (we prefer facts). Reading age: 12. Sans serif all the way.
Curator’s Advent is a little idea I’ve been toying around with to explore some of my beliefs and values as a curator and playfully challenge some myths about what ‘curator-types’ are like. Every day in the run up to Christmas I’ll be playing around with curatorship in a series of mini posts and pics. You may not necessarily know whether I am being serious.
Day 1. Please do not touch
Everyone knows curators are born with a special ability to handle museum objects. When you are ordained to be a curator you will receive a signal that you are a chosen one. Begloved, the curator lifts her precious treasure ve-ery slowly from the acid-free paper draped altar. Stay a safe distance away for any disturbance of the air between the beholder and the beheld may cause a small part of the object to die. When an artefact travels through the corridors of time and straight into a museum the curator has nourished it upon the elixir of eternal life with a monastic devotion. Anything less and you might just think you’re in an old junk or pawn shop. And that won’t do.
Back in March my chapter on material culture for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Mediterranean History came out.
It was a challenging exercise to condense into 8000 words the essence of the study of material culture in a Mediterranean geo-historical context and also to represent all periods of human history at the same time.
I have always been interested in the making and circulation of objects and this interest has never really obeyed traditional geographic or period boundaries. I feel as comfortable analysing an inventory of a 12th-century monastic treasury as I do trawling through 19th century order books. I know my way around early medieval metalwork as much as I do modern souvenirs in social history collections.
My background in museology has without doubt influenced my points of view and perceptions. As someone professionally involved in the presentation and interpretation of artefacts I am responsible for finding out what stories objects can tell, while also presenting a lens on the world through human creativity and productivity.
This attitude towards historical material culture and our sources for it is summed up in the first paragraph of my chapter:
The creation and use of complex tools are distinguishing traits of the human animal. As such, material culture is intrinsic to the humanities, whether approached through archaeology, anthropology, history, art or museology.
Fundamentally this chapter attempts to blow apart academic tendencies to narrow down–but this doesn’t mean that it eschews detail and depth. It provides food for thought on how we understand people’s relationships with things, with production and with consumption. That the basic need for humans to have and exchange commodities is as crucial to life as food and water. Most studies of material culture tend to speak in non-human terms, are clinical and distant from experience, or otherwise concerned with artistic conceits.
I was inspired in part by Fernand Braudel’s approach to studying and comparing economic and material life, and in part the seminal work edited by Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things. The abstract to my chapter explains its contents.
This chapter explores how the study of material culture illuminates Mediterranean history in new ways. Early discoveries in the Mediterranean influenced the development of material culture studies from archaeological classification to the phenomenon of making collections of classical artefacts during the Grand Tour which formed the basis of modern museums. Taking inspiration from Braudel’s other paradigm on the inter-relationship between economic and material life, this chapter then presents a series of vignettes on the materiality of eating, sitting and sleeping, which address how and why Mediterranean object cultures should be perceived in a globally-comparative context. There follow three epochal studies that apply Braudel’s global approach as well as object biography and documentary reconstruction to provide new perspectives on the prehistoric, ancient, medieval, early modern, modern and contemporary Mediterranean, taking examples from ceramics, the copper industry, the consumption of silk, textile conservation, souvenirs and mass craft manufacturing.
A Companion to Mediterranean History, part of Wiley Blackwell’s acclaimed Companions to History series has just been published.
The book project, led by editors Peregrine Horden and Sharon Kinoshita, is a culmination of at least three years’ work and a coming together of 29 contributors from across the world.
Each contributor is a specialist in their field, but we are united by an interest, for some a vocation, in testing the Mediterranean paradigm as a way of interrogating the history of the region (including the sea itself) in a meaningful and coherent way.
From climate to nautical technology, and cave dwelling to language, this volume is trailblaizes themes in history unfettered by the conventional parameters of the accepted canons of period, place and politics, or indeed disciplinary expectations.
It is a great credit to the editors that they have succeeded in bringing together such diverse scholars of varying experience, approaches and opinions and produced a coherent and thought-provoking book that will surely be argued over (we hope) by scholars and students alike.
My contribution was the chapter on material culture from prehistory to now, on which I will be writing a separate blog post.
About the book
Mediterranean history has never been more widely debated or practised, yet there remains no consensus about precisely how this history should be written, the definition of its parameters, or the breadth of topics it should include. In summarising the latest scholarship and reappraising key concepts, contributors to this volume enable fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue on subjects ranging from climate and cartography to material culture and heritage politics. A Companion to Mediterranean History represents an invaluable guide to the current state of Mediterranean scholarship that will also help to redefine the field for a new generation.
- Hardcover: 498 pages
- Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (12 Mar 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0470659017
- ISBN-13: 978-0470659014
- Product Dimensions: 24.6 x 17.6 x 2.8 cm
- RRP £120 Hardcover, £99.99 Ebook.
In September I was commissioned to help develop and create content for a digital history of Cornwall through its objects alla History of the World in 100 Objects format and fame.
A booklet of 100 objects chosen from collections across Cornwall’s museums had already been created by Museum Development Officers showcasing everything from a cork model of St Michael’s Mount made by one of its butlers and on show there, to a commemorative football medal from Mexico. The booklet had enjoyed limited circulation, and in particular, did not make much of an impact on audiences that did not visit museums and heritage sites in Cornwall.
This project, funded via a grant from Arts Council England, is available via the Museums in Cornwall website that showcases information and events from Cornish museums:
This was an exercise in writing for the web and exhibition interpretation. Using pre-selected (or curated) objects chosen by the museums themselves I was challenged with writing the stories that linked them together — some more seamlessly than others. Some objects appeared within more than one story while others found a place in some more unexpected themes such as Cornish Journeys or Customs but I think these work better than the more pedestrian, War, Mining and Sport. It’s an alternative history of Cornwall.
Pilgrimage and plant hunting
It takes a long time to get to Cornwall from most places in Britain, whether by road, rail or air.
Until the introduction of motorised transport most Cornish people walked the long distance to get from town to town, or from home to work. Many of the surviving waymarking crosses we see scattered across our landscape still mark the ancient routes that people used.
Pilgrimage was an important motive for starting a long journey. From the early Middle Ages St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’s most recognisable landmark, was a very significant pilgrimage site. Pilgrims from Britain and Ireland would have walked the 12.5 miles (19.5km) along St Michael’s Way, a route from Lelant near St Ives, to Marazion and the Mount. From here pilgrims could also make their way by sea to Mont Saint-Michel and other pilgrimage sites in Brittany and beyond…
At heart, I am a creative organiser of information which makes me deeply sensitive to the dull ways in which many museums and academics categorise and class collections. One entire section of my PhD thesis was a critique of taxonomy arguing that although the common language of classification helps scholars and researchers share information (like a common metadata standard) ultimately the structural interpretation of our material culture can be a major barrier to wider understanding–yes it’s about our audiences.
The History of Cornwall Through its Objects was therefore an attempt to blend the expected and the unexpected together. To tell new stories from Cornish heritage as well as reassure by telling favoured stories perhaps in a new way. I’m not sure this piece of digital heritage has succeeded particularly well. I have no idea of the analytics or even who is using it or coming across it. I have my doubts about its discoverability. The CMS that structured the data was quirky and bizarre to say the least but I can hope that the content will live on and somewhere out there it will fascinate people who love Cornwall and Cornish history.
Earlier in the year I spent some weeks in the summer researching and writing a survey of the links between Cornwall and South Wales, particularly those evidenced in the metal industries of copper, iron and steel, and tin.
It resulted in a wonderfully illustrated book called Graham Sutherland: From Darkness Into Light. War Paintings and Drawings, co-authored with Sally Moss and Paul Gough, and published by Sansom and Company.
Buy the book. RRP. £17.95.
it is not often that you will find modern art discussed in equal measure to the historical context of its subjects.