What’s a “bad thing”? Find out at the 13th-Annual Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars

We are pleased to announce the schedule for Very Bad Things: Material Culture and Disobedience. This free Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars will be held on Saturday, April 11, 2015, at the Winterthur Museum.

To register, please email emerging.scholars@gmail.com.

VERYBADTHINGSFINALVery Bad Things: Material Culture and Disobedience 

8:15 – Registration
8:45 – Welcome Remarks

9:00 – Session 1: Beneath the Surface

“Flying from What? Why, a Bit of Painted Wood”: A Cross-Disciplinary Analysis of Dummy Boards and Deception in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia
Katie McKinney and Emily Wroczynski, Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and Winterthur Program in Art Conservation, University of Delaware

Under Pressure: The Material and Political Resistance of Mezzotints
Amy Torbert, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Delaware

A Silver Brand: Slave Brands and Branding in the Early Modern Atlantic World
Erin Holmes, Ph.D Candidate, Department of History, University of South Carolina

Commentator: Catherine Dann Roeber, Development Officer, Major Gifts, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library

10:30 – Coffee Break

11:00 – Keynote Address
Auntie Steward
Speaker: Scott Herring, Associate Professor of English, Indiana University

12:00 – Lunch Break

1:00 – Session 2: The Inside Out/The Outside In

“It’s a Lone Thing – and I’m a Lone Thing”: Bad Currency and the Miser’s Economy in Silas Marner
Meg Dobbins, Ph.D. Candidate, English, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Washington University in St. Louis

Picturing the Black Home: The Visual and Material Culture of Nineteenth-Century African American Activism
Whitney Stewart, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, Rice University

A “Blight” and a “Nuisance”: Billboards, Spectaculars, and Outdoor Advertising in American Cities, 1900-1920
Craig Lee, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Delaware

Commentator: Katherine Fama, NEH Research Fellow, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library

2:30 – Break

2:45 – Session 3: The Deviant Body

Overcoming a Sensational Icon: Ku Klux Klan Robes as Historical Evidence
Katherine Lennard, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of American Culture, University of Michigan

Dangerously Empowered by Iron: Basement Gyms and Excitement about Bodybuilding in the late USSR
Alexey Golubev, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, University of British Columbia

The Romanticization of Resistance: The Contradictions and Failures of the Zapatista Doll
Erin Sexton, American Studies Department, George Washington University

Grave Goods: The Disquieting Contents of Singaporean Burial Plots
Ruth E. Toulson, Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities, Penn Humanities Forum/Department of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Commentator: Sandy Isenstadt, Professor, Department of Art History, University of Delaware

4:30 – Tours of Winterthur

To register, please email emerging.scholars@gmail.com.

On What it Means to Last

By Alyce Graham

In the last week of October, I had the good fortune to attend “Meant to Last? Preserving the Modern & Contemporary,” a conference hosted by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

College of Physicians
College of Physicians (Wiki Commons) 

The two-day conference brought together museum professionals, archivists, conservators, and students from around the region. The discussions prompted by each session raised valuable questions about how collections of modern materials should be composed, conserved, and disseminated.

Gregory Dale Smith, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, led one of the most valuable sessions. By describing the process of setting up his lab at the museum and walking through a few case studies, Smith entered into a wider consideration of what obligations museums had to care for objects made of inherently ephemeral materials. Modern materials often defy traditional cleaning techniques. For example, the plastic webbing on a collection of designer hats had begun to degrade. As plasticizers oozed out, the hats collected dust and lost the glossy appearance intended by the artist. But the plastic resisted water, so the lab stepped in to determine what the best procedure for cleaning and stabilizing the degradation. Unfortunately, they discovered that removing the dust and the sticky residue would only encourage more sticky residue to rise to the surface of the plastic, eventually causing considerable loss to the object. So the curators had to weigh their options: leave the hats dirty, in opposition to their original appearance; or clean the hats and risk losing the object. Smith’s analysis of this situation will help many curators as they work through similar crises in their own collections.

Plastics: Looking at the Future and Learning from the Past
Smith recommended this book called Plastics: Looking at the Future and Learning from the Past

Smith led another session the following day focusing on the case study of a ceramic vase decorated with fugitive inks from a set of markers, the Italian equivalent of Crayola. The vase had gone on a touring exhibition under standard light and humidity restrictions, only to return with near total losses of color over several areas. The museum has not determined a solution to this problem yet. They are working with the artist to understand his intention—was fading and loss part of his plan for the lifespan of the object?—and with conservators and scientists to set storage parameters for the vase. It also served as a reminder to registrars to go ahead and set extremely restrictive light parameters for objects going out on loan, especially if they are made of modern or untested materials. Another reminder came from Smith’s description of a set of plastic lamps that crystallized when left in a storage crate for over a year. Despite the admonition that the crates should not serve as permanent storage, a reorganization of the museum’s storage areas made it seem safer to keep them packed. During that year, the wood of the packing crates turned the interior environment of the crates acidic, causing the crystallization. The crystallized lamps have been deaccessioned into a study collection, and now we all have one more reason to unpack promptly.

Besides the scientific case studies, the conference also provided several sessions that asked wider questions about what collections of modern materials could mean to the public. Several talks broadly considered the implications of collection and conservation. There was an excellent explanation of copyright laws, and a panel discussion about digital collections. Anne C. Jones, curator at the 1950’s All-Electric House at the Johnson County (KS) Museums, spoke about their acquisition and furnishing of an entire house. The museum collected a tract house as an exemplar of the style of homes that changed post-war America. There was nothing special about it architecturally or historically. Instead, it was refurbished as a model home exactly like the ones people would have toured in the 1950s. In light of this, Jones shunned traditional conservation of several objects, reaching out instead to commercial restoration services to make the objects “look new.” This unorthodox decision allowed her to protect the museum’s intent for the house’s collection.

Even for those of us material culture scholars who love the really old stuff, it is likely that the collections we will care for in our professional futures will hold objects made of modern materials. As we care for whatever sort of degrading plastic hats or vases made with cheap, nontoxic markers in our own collections, holding aloft the questions of our collection’s purpose and the artist’s intent can guide us as we make critical decisions.

About the author: Alyce Graham is a fifth-year American Civilization PhD candidate writing her dissertation about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.

From Half-eaten Cookies to RFID Labels: Reflections on the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists Conference

On the first weekend in November, I attended the first conference of the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) in Chicago. I am grateful that the History Department provided professional development funding to help with the cost.

The ARCS conference included twenty-four sessions over three days, interspersed with lunches, coffee breaks, and evening receptions. Since more than 500 people attended the conference, these events acted as networking events. I tried to introduce myself to five new people every day, and in this way I met registrars and art handlers from museums across the country.

I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, because I felt like they would be professionally helpful for me at my future job or because they dealt with some aspect of the work I was not familiar with or wanted to know more about. For instance, registrars from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh talked about their integrated pest management program in terms of the discovery of a massive infestation discovered during their cataloguing process. This brought pest management, a general topic I feel fairly comfortable having a conversation about, into a new plane of consideration: how to deal with an infestation in an uncatalogued collection, how to address the infestation without disrupting the cataloguing process, and how to organize and implement a pest management system in the midst of a crisis. Plus, they showed slides of insects devouring non-traditional museum collection objects that The Warhol has, like dog biscuits or half-eaten cookies. These slides were revolting and informative.

I also attended a session on transporting works of art to Italy. While this is irrelevant to my current position, I hope I get to use this knowledge in the future, because it would mean I was working at a place that exchanged artworks with Italy. When that happens, I will know to write a clause into the insurance agreement that allows the artwork to be pulled behind a tractor or transported by gondola, methods that insurance agreements typically discourage.

The most useful session covered the uses of new technology like iPads for registrars. Besides introducing us to several helpful applications, the speakers described a beautifully brief process for taking condition reports that went from taking incoming photography to saving the final report on the computer without having to leave the object’s side. Other suggestions included attaching RFID labels to packing crates of traveling exhibitions that uploaded a video of handling or mounting procedures when scanned and using collaborative software to track workflow. I have already started using some of the ideas from this session in my work at Winterthur, where I have had a graduate assistantship in the Registrar’s Office since 2010.

ARCS has a student membership rate, and they host networking events in the area, too. Anyone who is interested in more information can visit their website, www.arcsinfo.org. The next conference will be in 2015.

About the author: Alyce Graham is the Student Assistant to the Registrar at the Winterthur Museum and a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate writing about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.


Semester Roundup

As usual, Am Civvies have been busy this semester publishing articles and giving talks. Here is just a sampling of some of the things they’ve written and the places they’ve gone:

Nicole Belolan

  • “Collecting Disability History,” UK Disability History Month 2013 series, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, November 25, 2013.
  • “About Something of for Someone? Curatorial Ethics and Curatorial Debts,” roundtable participant, discussed early 20th-century art museum program for disable children, American Studies Association annual meeting, Washington, D.C. (November 22, 2013)
  • “Aunt Patty’s Furniture: Adult Cradles and the History of Physical Mobility Impairment in Early America,” New Thoughts on Old Things: Four Centuries of Furnishing the Northeast, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA (October 4, 2013)

Lisa Minardi

  • “The Muhlenberg Family and the War for American Independence,” The Transatlantic World of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg in the Eighteenth Century, eds. A. Gregg Roeber, Thomas Müller-Bahlke,and Hermann Wellenreuther (Halle, Germany: Franckesche Stiftungen, 2013).
  • “Palladian architecture, Germanic style: The Hiester House in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania,” The Magazine Antiques (September/October 2013): 140–147.

Nalleli Guillen

  • Book review of Rebecca Cawood McIntyre, Souvenirs of the Old South: Northern Tourism and Southern MythologyWinterthur Portfolio 47, 4 (Winter 2013: 304-306.

Tyler Putman

  • “‘Every man turned out in the best he had’: Clothing and Buttons in the Historical and Archaeological Records of Johnson’s Island Prisoner-of-War Depot, 1862-1865,” Northeast Historical Archaeology 40 (2011, published 2013): 86-103.
  • Civil War-style military drill instructor (experiential history) for Prof. J. Ritchie Garrison’s innovative undergraduate history course “The Emancipation Project.”

Embodied Objects—The Eleventh Annual Material Cultural Symposium for Emerging Scholars…and why it matters

One of the first questions I am inevitably asked when someone discovers I study material culture is not where (what geographical region?) or when (what time period?), but why (what for?). Why do you study objects? Why do you study objects when there are so many written historical sources left untouched in archives? Why do you study mute objects when you could be retrieving human voices? Why do objects—and, by extension, material culture studies—matter?

I have been asked these questions so many times that I have prepared a stable of answers that I may trot out whenever confronted by a skeptical inquisitor. First, I explain that I don’t study objects to the exclusion of other source materials, such as account books, letters, newspaper advertisements, and diaries. Then I argue that objects are far from mute—scholars just need to learn their language. Objects reflect human relationships that may be absent from—or even erased by—written sources. Like books, objects embody the distinctive worldviews of their creators and original users, but are also open to new interpretations by contemporary audiences. Furthermore, they may reveal the experiences of people excluded from the traditional archive, either because of illiteracy or systematic suppression and oppression. Finally, I assert that objects are repositories of both individual and collective memories, essential to understanding where we have been and where we are going as a society. At this point, my questioner is usually satisfied with my response or tired of arguing with me. In either case, I view it as another small victory in the campaign to make material culture a respectable discipline.

However, my experiences in recent months have made me realize that I am neglecting the most important argument in my arsenal. As co-chair of this year’s Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars, I am once again reminded of the power of material culture studies to inspire interdisciplinary collaboration. This year’s symposium, entitled “Embodied Objects: Material Culture Studies in Three Dimensions,” has drawn speakers from a variety of disciplines, including history, visual studies, English, art history, design, and American studies. On Saturday, April 20th at the Winterthur Museum, these speakers will engage with an audience of academic faculty, museum professionals, students, and a broad, interested public. And they will engage with one another.

Embodied Objects conference poster. Designed by graphic design student Chris Murphy.

Ten years ago, the first Emerging Scholars Symposium was born when a group of University of Delaware students expanded their conversation about people and objects to include other academics, museum professionals, and members of the local community. In addition to creating a friendly space for young scholars to share their work, the Emerging Scholars relayed a positive message to other students of material culture: you are not alone.

Material culture scholars got the message. This year, we received an overwhelming response to our call for papers, which asked submitters to consider the relationship between people and their things, paying special attention to how objects act as extensions of ourselves, help to stabilize identity, and give permanence to human relationships. The symposium will feature eleven presenters grouped into three panels, which will broadly explore race and cultural memory, public spaces and commemoration, and gender and the exchange of gendered knowledge. In many cases, these emerging scholars demonstrate how objects provide evidence of human relationships where few other source materials exist. They demonstrate how people create, adapt, and even destroy objects to fit their changing social needs. Perhaps most importantly, they highlight how often people construct cultural dialogues around the objects that pervade their lives.

The organization of the conference is also an exercise in interdisciplinary collaboration. Without the help of graduate students and faculty in the departments of history, art history, English, and sociology, as well as the Center for Historic Architecture and Design, the Museum Studies Program, the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, and the Center for Material Culture Studies, none of this would be possible. In particular, I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous efforts of my co-chair Amy Torbert, a graduate student in art history, and our faculty adviser Deborah Andrews, professor of English and Director of the Center for Material Culture Studies. Despite our varied backgrounds, we have made our shared vision a reality.

We hope you will join us for this year’s Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars so that we may continue to expand the discussion of material culture, answer difficult questions, and forge new relationships across disciplines. For more information on our program and registration, please visit http://www.udel.edu/materialculture/ess_program.html.

About the Author: Liz Jones is a third-year doctoral student in the History of American Civilization Program at the University of Delaware. She is currently researching women’s consumption habits in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJonesAll1Wrd.