Saturday, April 4, 2009

Thinking more about material culture

As a young professional and graduate student, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about using objects as evidence. I was delighted to attend a conference where I had the opportunity to listen to seven professionals discuss these very same issues.

In round table session The Objects of History Patricia West, James Gardner and Cynthia Koch presented practical and philosophical approaches that sprang from their own work experiences. West discussed work in her own site, Martin Van Buren National Historic Site as well as other historic house museums. Gardner discussed the reopening of the National Museum of American History particularly the use of large iconic objects reinterpreted for new generations. Finally, Koch of Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum explored ways objects, multimedia and images within the museum can better portray the experiences FDR in the White House as well as how he used his library office upon leaving office.

Gardner’s exploration of considerations for the Star Spangled Banner impressed me greatly. This priceless icon of American history is not only well preserved but also uniquely accessible for generations to come in a specially designed laboratory exhibit case. The exhibit itself is elegant and spare.

West offered suggestions to challenge us to “re-see” our own sites.
• Rethink to see what is not obvious (someone who is ill would always be in bed – don’t make the bed)
• Honor other points of view (servants, slavery, others who interact with a house)
• Reframe what you see, many changes are the problematic addition of
unthinking display mode. (Koch would certainly second this rule! As well as others I believe).
• Finally, focus on slightly less information but greater evocative impact. In essence regift what the site already has to use them in new ways to connect with the past.

Discussion ranged from the practical to the philosophical as well. Ending with a meditation on the power of objects to bring to mind the past in ways two-dimensional evidence cannot. This is one power of public history.

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