Front Matter - Editorial

Front Matter


Gerald Pocius
Memorial University

Ideal Forms, Practical Responses

1 The articles in this issue of Material History Review deal with military artifact worlds — one recent, one more distant. In its special issue on "War: Object, Context and Culture" (number 42,1995), MHR published a collection of essays that put artifactual aggression into a larger historical and cultural context; the essays by Cook and MacLean add to this scholarship.

2 Tim Cook's lengthy study untangles the strands of one particular type of warfare that is in the public eye even today: the use of chemical poisons. What becomes clear through Cook's meticulous research is how haphazard much of the development of technological warfare really is. Devices have often been tested by trial and error, causing all forms of human suffering — the price of perfecting particular types of destructive objects. Unlike the development of other forms of technology that can, at least in part, take place under the controlled conditions of the laboratory or the model home, weapons can only be refined on the battleground in the real world.

3 Terry MacLean's study deals with warfare as well — in this case a military shrine that has become emblematic on many symbolic levels. While MacLean does not deal with this particular issue directly, there seems to be a subtle irony in the fact that Louisbourg—one of Canada's leading museums — is, in fact, a military fortress. While the United States has reconstructed a colonial capital and Sweden a bucolic farming landscape,1 the Canadian government (of peace-keeping fame) has focussed part of its public history on an early military enterprise. Much still needs to be done to understand fully how our collective national identity is represented in our federal and provincial museums.2

4 Richard MacKinnon's essay shifts gears, but still is concerned with a recurrent theme: the way industries shape technologies. Throughout Canada, companies often create one-industry towns, and in that creation provide very specific lifestyle models. From Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick to Cumberland, British Columbia — and in dozens of other places — corporate visions have provided very specific ideas of what community layouts, house plans and building technologies should be.3 Corporate ideology rather than the ideology of warfare governed such communities, but ideal artifact forms were prescribed there nonetheless.

5 The lure of technology, as well, shaped the forms that Walter Peddle's Newfoundland furniture took. Peddle is involved with an extensive project to trace the Irish influences on local furniture-making traditions. Yet, when one deals with furniture made in the second half of the nineteenth century and later, the influences of mass production on local craft traditions must be considered. We can see the Irish layerings on many Newfoundland furniture forms, but layerings on forms also developed when factory designers, steam-powered saws and the demand for faux woods became common. In these chairs or washstands we see the fusion of ethnicity and technology found in so many artifact types.

6 Jean-François Moreau deals with a theme that links all of these essays together: the classification of culture by technologies and the way these classifications are transcended by borrowing, exchanging and adapting artifacts. In our global world, using particular artifacts as indicators of pristine cultural values is increasingly unproductive.4 As Moreau's study indicates, this is not a recent issue; in fact, it has as much to do with our own academic categories as it has with the real world. And the issue of artifact borrowing across cultural groups has been recognized as a longstanding norm rather than a recent phenomenon.5

7 So all of these essays, then, begin with an ideal artifact shaped by particular cultural norms, often technologically based. Whether it be the gas mask, the fort, the house, the chair or the projectile point, in general, all were the products of a small group of experts with ideals of appropriateness. And these essays all deal with the responses to these ideals. Gas masks were altered as warfare evolved and lives continued to be lost. House plans evolved with modifications and decoration; furniture forms were modified as a result of ethnic persistence.

8 Borrowing between native groups, and between natives and Europeans, pushed the boundaries of cultural definitions. Even today, an eighteenth-century fortress is recreated to stand as something completely different: an identity symbol for a region, a monument to the founding European peoples of a nation, a theme park for wealthy tourists.6 As the field of material culture studies has developed, we have realized more and more how standard artifact forms often elicit a myriad of responses from ordinary people. Mikhail Baktin's notion of the dialogic comes into play again: what was intended when a particular object was made, and how it was actually used, reused and altered in a particular context is never predictable. As contexts change, so does the way people think through their objects.

Gerald Pocius
Editor in Chief
1 See Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 115-120.
2 See Flora E. S. Kaplan, ed., Museums and the Making of "Ourselves": The Role of Objects in National Identity. (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1994).
3 Harold Kalman, A History of Canadian Architecture, vol. H. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994), 691-704.
4 On this problem see Ulz Hannerz, Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places. (New York: Routledge, 1996), 1-29.
5 See the essays in Laurier Turgeon, Denys Delage and Real Ouellet, eds., Transferts culturels et métissages Amérique/Europe, XVF-XX siècle - Cultural Transfer, America and Europe: 500 Years of Interculturation. (Sainte-Foy: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1996).
6 Compare the recent study by Richard Handler, The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997).