The significance of things

Silver and coral baby's rattle, at Snowshill Manor (NT1340278). ©National Trust Collections

Silver and coral baby’s rattle, at Snowshill Manor (NT1340278). ©National Trust Collections

Professor Margot Finn, who is leading the East India Company at Home project, recently gave a talk posing the question ‘How can things make historians think differently?’

Edith Agnes Eleanor Bliss, aged 7 months, April 1864, by Davy, at the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey (NT97792). ©National Trust Collections

Edith Agnes Eleanor Bliss, aged 7 months, April 1864, by Davy, at the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey (NT97792). ©National Trust Collections

Margot began by reminding the audience how our understanding of history has been shaped by ‘the overweening tyranny of the written text’. Objects, being mostly non-textual, have been ignored by historians or at most tolerated as illustrations for their own texts.

The Flute Player, Meissen porcelain group, c. 1900, at Nunnington Hall (NT979528). ©National Trust Collections

The Flute Player, Meissen porcelain group, c. 1900, at Nunnington Hall (NT979528). ©National Trust Collections

She handed a group of objects to the members of the audience with the request to pass them round and to note down any associations they might evoke.

Baby carriage, 1762, at Kedleston Hall (NT108650). ©National Trust Collections

Baby carriage, 1762, at Kedleston Hall (NT108650). ©National Trust Collections

This was also to emphasise her point about the limits of exhibitions and museum displays, which admittedly place the objects centre-stage, but at the same time move them out of reach and divorce them from their original contexts.

Mary Myddelton (1688-1747) and Sir William Myddelton, 4th Bt (1694-1718), as children, English School, at Chirk Castle (NT1171140). ©National Trust Collections

Mary Myddelton (1688-1747) and Sir William Myddelton, 4th Bt (1694-1718), as children, English School, at Chirk Castle (NT1171140). ©National Trust Collections

Margot welcomed the online proliferation of images of objects in museum collections, but she also cautioned that this in some ways reduces objects to flat, full-frontal images (something I also touched on in my previous posts on the Pinterest phenomenon).

White cotton baby's cap, at Overbeck's House (NT1413897). ©National Trust Collections

White cotton baby’s cap, at Overbeck’s House (NT1413897). ©National Trust Collections

She posed a kind of ‘baby test': how can we historians and curators convey historical reality with as much immediacy as if we were in the presence of an adorably cute and simultaneously pungently messy baby? Now there’s a challenge.

7 Responses to “The significance of things”

  1. Susan Walter Says:

    So at the moment museum displays are other people’s children (adorable in small doses, but not our responsibility, and no hint of pong)? BTW, I presume young Edith Bliss is discreetly tied to that chair…

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes I wonder how long it took the photographer to get that shot… :)

  3. deana Says:

    I love the bits and bobs that give a sense of living in a place. Obviously a fully stocked kitchen with all the equipment of a period is an easy catch and people like myself love walking about and wondering how things worked, often shocked by ingenuity or incredulous that anything got done with what was at hand.

    Games, toys, sewing or crafts in sitting rooms or bedrooms — they all give a sense of who the people were. Isn’t that why we love Austen? She was so generous with her descriptions of the small things that we can all relate to. Paintings and drawings aid the tyrannical written word getting it all right –– not such a bad thing in the end.

    Knowing the way things were used gives the objects greater value. I know I have loved looking at them on your site or even the sites of the big auction houses and reading what they were used for –– always fascinating. Seeing them in 2D is often the first way many see them, so for that, Pinterest is a good thing –– I actually think it encourages travel to see things 3D in person.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes as you say we need a multi-sensory approach: some text some images, some objects, some spaces and some smells and sounds.

    Your latest post about The Great Gatsby, complete with your recreation of Nick Carraway’s lemon cakes, is actually a good example of that! The cakes look yummy :)

  5. Karen Albert Says:

    That baby rattle is a wonderful little work of art. The subject very interesting!

    OH and yes those lemon cakes; I can actually taste them.

    2013 Designers Series
    xoxo
    Karena
    Art by Karena

  6. Hammond-Harwood House Says:

    This is the appeal of sites like the Severs House – they attempt to show real life, spilled wine, unmade beds, and all. It’s hard to recreate that at a museum, where protecting collections is a priority, but I think we all try. I went to a workshop this week that suggested using storytelling to connect your visitors to your site, telling them evocative details to bring out the real lives that happened there. I found it inspiring, and am going to work on integrating those techniques into our tours.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes indeed that is a classic conundrum, how to combine the duty to preserve with the need to interpret and make accessible. And as you say a storytelling approach can be a good way of bringing an object alive without physically affecting it. Which brings us back to history-writing, which in some ways is simply a grown-up version of storytelling, of course :)

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