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?’
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.