Editorial / Éditorial - Objects and Identity

Editorial / Éditorial

Objects and Identity

Gerald Pocius
Editor in Chief

Object and Identity

1 This volume of Material History Review contains essays that touch on the issue of identity. For a number of years, now, this concept has been one of the prominent focuses in much cultural research. Our world is filled with academic treatises and popular writings that deal with this notion on many different levels. We have identities that are national, regional, communal, ethnic, religious, individual. The concept has been so widely used that critiques have appeared that, in fact, have argued that identity is just a phrase that glosses over a myriad of diverse and unconnected issues.

2 Scholars continue to debate the heuristic merits of this concept. However, there is no doubt that many people recognize that objects are a part of identity. Artifacts are visible and tangible, and these characteristics enable people to associate the physical presence of artifacts with particular people, places or behaviours. And numerous writers have explained how we identify ourselves with the things we collect and then surround ourselves with. This defining of self can occur on several levels simultaneously, so that the identity of a person is bound up in the identities of nation or group or locality — all associated with certain things. Material culture, then, can become synonymous with identity, and one rarely can investigate things without talking about how these things create an identity for individuals on many levels.

3 Identity that involves the political entity of a nation is probably one of the most widely researched issues. As globalization blurs the boundaries between countries, governments strive to create the material icons that encourage a people to associate with their nation. Public art, monuments, memorials and national historic sites all are created so that objects placed in shared spaces permit citizens to experience tangible messages of patriotism. Such public signs are often contested in nations where conflict or occupation occurs — the destruction of statues of Lenin or Saddam Hussein being recent examples. Brian and Geraint Osborne's study of Parliament Hill and the establishment of a pantheon of monuments is an example of how in our own country ideas of nationhood were materialized through public objects that depicted historical figures and events ordinary people could identify with, fostering our national identity.

4 Lynne McNeill's essay on Inuksuits on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland is a study in how an artifact has the ability to take on both national and regional identities. The Inuksuit is an assemblage of rocks created historically by Inuit groups, having been built in many Arctic regions, including Alaska, Greenland, as well as the Canadian north. These rock piles, however, are being constructed on many landscapes throughout Canada, frequently removed from their cultural base in the Far North. Inuksuits have moved beyond their regional identity associated with the Inuit to a broader Canadian identity — associated with a culture of the North. Objects with such national connections, in turn, are localized in specific regions such as Newfoundland. They become ways to mark wilderness in what is perceived as a generically Canadian way.

5 Objects of national identity can be part of regional identity. However, artifacts considered unique to a region (whether they are unique or not) can become central to that region's identity. Often this happens when ordinary, everyday objects begin to disappear, and are assumed to be associated with earlier lifestyles. Paula Flynn's essay chronicles this phenomenon when it comes to Newfoundland hooked rugs. Objects once functional are now considered as art, produced by trained craftspeople and sold at high prices in galleries. For Newfoundland identity, hooked rugs have become the artifact equivalent of music or mummering.

6 In particular social contexts, identity becomes associated with the items of one ethnic group. Food is one of the most common objects that is associated with ethnic identity. Janet Gilmore's study of Great Lakes cuisine examines the perceived French influences on a specific food in his region. Acculturation occurs on many levels for groups who come in contact with other groups, and many artifact traditions disappear. However, food remains as one of the lasting material reminders of a group's earlier identity.

7 While objects are associated with the identity of a group, different groups often contest what the object says. Art Cockerill's note on the material culture of Labrador's trappers raises the question that objects (such as temporary dwellings or sleds in this case) are often hybrids made up of ideas from different groups. Natives and settlers in Labrador evolved different systems of material culture, but, in some cases did borrow from one another. The objects that Cockerill writes about relate to the European trapper's identity, but contained borrowed elements from other groups as well.

8 Historic sites become associated with identity. The essays by both Robyn Pike and Christian Roy deal with ways that this happens. In Roy's example, earlier forms of technology become scenes where identities are fostered. The various kinds of tools that Roy investigates all point to an era where objects were fashioned by hand, and there was a direct relationship between maker and consumer. Such sites, then, shape present-day Quebec's identity by linking it to a more noble past. Pike's report, as well, is a case study of the creation of a historic site that now has become central in the identity of a Newfoundland town, in previous eras buildings like the Rorke Stores were found all over Newfoundland. Now with such buildings almost all disappeared, the survival of this particular structure has enabled the community to enshrine it as a unique example of a fishery now past. The warehouse as museum site gives a sense of local identity to residents of the town.

9 Finally, the report by Grant MacLeod provides an example of how objects become associated with individual identity. In this particular case, a regional craftsperson adapted a widespread boat design to develop a unique craft. Residents of the area soon associated this particular boat and design to the specific person. Objects, therefore, of a certain maker become the tangible presence of his or her identity.

10 Material culture creates identities on any number of levels. Objects are thus multivocal, and speak to the ways that people define themselves through many different identities. Artifacts help us tell other people who we are, while at the same time making clear those images to ourselves. Through objects of national identity, group identity, or individual identity, we create a material world that speaks best to who it is we are.