Editorial / Éditorial - Museums and their Collections: - Tangible and Intangible

Editorial / Éditorial

Museums and their Collections:

Tangible and Intangible

Richard MacKinnon
Editor in Chief

1 The papers in this issue of Material Culture Review provide a sense of some current North American approaches to the multidisciplinary study of mate- rial culture. All address how material culture can be multivocal, communicating multiple messages to users, observers, makers and the general public. Bret Edwards explores how the megaphone has conveyed multiple meanings over time. Seeing it as a gendered communication tool of the patriarchal Victorian era, Edwards demonstrates how the megaphone acquired new meanings and new uses as women and African Americans began to use it in their struggles for social change throughout the 20th century.

2 Four of the papers in this issue focus on museums and their collections, providing new readings of artifacts, their makers and users. In her article, Meghann Jack considers the role of the local museum in shaping identity and a sense of place for residents of Harlow New Town, Essex, England. Her research includes interviews with museum personnel as well as visitors, with both groups conveying a sense of what it means to local residents to belong to Harlow. Suggesting that the museum is more than a representation of time, but is linked to the particularity of place, Jack sees the Museum of Harlow as a repository where “local memories, histories, stories and objects are held and displayed as illustrations and validations of a particular community’s purpose and distinctiveness of place” (48).

3 Stacey Loyer’s essay establishes the value of analyzing and interpreting older ethnographic collections to produce new meanings. The collec- tion of ethnographer Frederick Wilkerson Waugh, who gathered materials from the Onkwehonwe community under the colonial project, can provide new insights, connections and understandings for present-day members of indigenous communities. The author writes that as collections like this become more accessible to their source communities “the possibility grows for new connections to be made through them—a possibility perhaps not intended by collectors, but one which holds starting points for explorations in new directions, for telling stories and crafting meaningful histories” (58).

4 Gary Hughes’ article on Royal Provincial shoulder belt plates addresses the influence of British Neo-classical architecture on silversmith Lewis Feuter, who made belt plates for Royal Provincial or Loyalist troops during the revolution- ary war. Hughes contends that it was the influence of Scottish architect Robert Adam that led to the Neo-classical designs produced by Feuter in his late-18th-century work in New York. Citing Bonwick (1991) the author notes, “It is not surpris- ing that a Loyalist like Lewis Feuter would notice iconographic developments across the ocean and hope for the continued preservation of Britain in America” (32).

5 The exhibition review essay by Alena Buis focuses on a major museum exhibition, Dutch New York Between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick, held at the Bard Graduate Centre for Decorative Arts, Design History and Material Culture in New York City. Working from the will and probate inventory documents of van Varick,the curators were able to mount the exhibition with objects—representing the types of material culture van Varick might have owned—borrowed from public and private collec- tions in the United States and the Netherlands. As the author says, “the exhibition demonstrates an innovative approach to curating. It promotes the exhibition of material culture as a self-reflexive process, highlighting the curatorial team’s critical engagement with often-ignored objects and equally overlooked histories” (69).

6 In addition to the discussion around museums and their collections, another theme that emerges in this issue is the inextricable connection between tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The 2003UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage calls for greater attention to be paid to intangible cultural heritage by scholars around the world. To that end, Mary Grow explores the work of Cambodian architect Hok Sokol who is committed to building and restoring Khmer wooden houses in his native Cambodia. By incorporating the traditional practice of a column raising ceremony into the design and construction of the houses he builds, Sokol is adhering to the principles of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention by “reconstituting a world view and cultural inheritance that were threatened severely during the brutal years (1975-1979) of the Khmer Rouge regime” (60).

7 Interestingly, two previously mentioned authors in this issue also draw on the connection between the tangible and the intangible. Meghann Jack points out that the curators at the Museum of Harlow consciously chose artifacts to trigger memories of specific occasions in the community’s past that would leave local visitors with a communal or shared emotion about a particular time or event in the town. Likewise, Stacey Loyer demonstrates that the ethnographic materials, photographs, notes and diagrams, collected by F. W. Waugh also “carry images, knowledge and voices of the community” (58) from the past to the present day.

8 Together, then, the papers in this issue speak to the multivocality of museums and their collections—both the tangible and the intangible—and the innovative ways in which they can contribute to the development of fresh interpretations, new connections and different ways of understanding cultural heritage.

Richard MacKinnon

Editor in Chief

Bonwick, Colin. 1991. The American Revolution. Charlottesville, NC: University of Virginia Press.
UNESCO. 2003. Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. See http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?lg=en&pg=00006 (accessed January 10, 2012).