Introduction - Material Culture and Mobility


Material Culture and Mobility

Edward S. Cooke Jr.
Imogen Hart

1 The theme for this special volume of Material Culture Review / Revue de la culture matérielle, and a number of the articles in it, have their intellectual roots in the endeavours of Yale University’s Material Culture Study Group. Consisting primarily of interested Yale faculty, graduate students, and museum professionals, but also inviting pertinent local or visiting scholars, the group shares a deep interest in the study, analysis, and interpretation of material culture. Each year since its establishment in 1996 we have developed a theme that neatly blends the concrete thingliness of artifacts, the close looking at objects’ materiality, with the abstract implications of those objects’ use or value, the more imaginative consideration of their cultural role. Some of our recent themes have included “Material Culture and Interiority,” “The Hot and Cold of Material Culture,” and “Rematerializing: Recycling, Reusing, and Renovating Material Culture.” Such topics have helped to construct a broad interdisciplinary community on the Yale campus.

2 The group assembles for a weekly lunch during the fall and spring semesters, averaging about eighteen presentations per academic year. At each meeting, a speaker makes a short 15- or 20-minute informal presentation centred on an artifact or group of artifacts germane to the theme of that year, followed by lively discussion about methodology, interpretation, and context. Artifact-driven inquiry, rather than artifactcentred absorption, allows objects to serve as a point of departure, basis of discussion, or focus of methodology. These weekly meetings thus serve as a laboratory in which participants will try out new methodological approaches, sharpen theoretical underpinnings, or enrich contextual understanding. We also hope to attract scholars at Yale not currently working with material culture and provide them with a forum to explore artifacts.

3 During the 2011-2012 academic year, the Material Culture Study Group explored the topic “Objects in Motion: Material Culture and Mobility.”1 We often think of objects statically, at rest in their “original” context, or in situ. In museum installations or store shelves and in books or magazines, objects are often represented as fixed and isolated, as if frozen in a particular time and space. Placement on a platform, under a vitrine, or on the pages of a publication privileges a single visual statement and often denies an object additional meanings. Textiles framed or flattened behind glass may previously have hung in folds and changed position with every draft or passing figure or gained meaning from being unfolded or unrolled in different locations. In contrast, the soft sculptures of the 1960s by artists such as Robert Morris drew attention to the role of chance, gravity, and decomposition as unpredictable forces in the appearance and nature of objects. We often speak of an object’s “original condition” as not only desirable but also ideal, whereas we devalue an object with changes or alterations and often try to return it to its pristine state. Yet objects are rarely inert; not only do most objects experience peripatetic lives before arriving at a destination, many kinds of objects continue to be moved, repositioned, or displaced throughout their existence. One might go so far as to say that mobility is an inherent property, or even a defining element, of material culture.

4 In current material culture scholarship, mobility tends to be thought about more in terms of the sources of materials and labour. For example, the concept of commodity chain seeks to identify the various networks through which materials and parts flow, become assembled and marketed (See Bair 2009). Similarly, the migration of craftsmen often provides the explanation for the development of new techniques or styles (Quimby 1984). And of course the design and means by which things or people are moved are also key concepts in cultural studies. Bikes, carts, cars, trains, ships, and planes are all a specific subset of material culture, developed for transportation. In such cases mobility is literal, a functional requirement, rather than abstract, a phenomenon that contributes to the cultural power of an object. The object facilitates mobility rather than gaining meaning through its own actual movement. Other artifacts, such as 1930s industrial designed streamlined objects, are stylized to suggest motion, capitalizing on notions of modernity or fantasy. Many writers see this group of objects, whether engaged with real or imagined mobility, as works that make reference to transportation as an end unto itself rather than recognizing how mobility can be a condition that contributes to meanings (for example, see Bush 1975).

5 Ironically, in today’s globalized world knit together by rapid information exchange and worldwide shipping, there remains a strange disconnect between objects and mobility. We focus upon the means of mobility or the design of the vehicle of transportation, rather than the meaning of artifactual mobility. And the specter of planned obsolescence means that we focus more on primary purchases, the personal craftsman-client relationship, or the rise of the department store, than on the secondary and tertiary markets found in second-hand furniture venues of the 18th century, the pawn shops of the late 19th century, or eBay of the 21st century.

6 Some objects, such as chairs or tables with casters, can be classified as examples of intentional mobility. They were designed and constructed to incorporate motion as part of their functions within specific domestic room settings. Other artifacts, like mugs, pitchers, and teapots, are less explicitly about movement and can be classified within the category of unintentional mobility. They are picked up, handled, and put down elsewhere during normal or even aberrant use. Seasonal rhythms and the life cycle of purchases further promote mobility, as these and other artifacts, such as tablewares, furniture, and curtains, are moved around an interior, exchanged between households, handed down, sold on, altered, or replaced. Silver tankards used for gift giving and domestic social entertainment in the 18th-century parlour were often converted to spouted water pitchers used on the dining room table during the temperance movements of the 19th century, and then removed from use and engraved with coats of arms in the spirit of early 20th-century antique collecting and display (see Ward 1977). Some objects, such as South Asian chintzes in the late 17th century or Pueblo pottery in the late 19th century, were not only shipped over long distances but more importantly permitted imaginary travel by the Anglo owner in England or America. Their forms, materials, or decorative techniques evoked strange lands and experiences (Crill 2008; Batkin 2008). Objects thus constantly enter new spaces, negotiate different social situations, and experience varied uses. Movement, memory, touch, use, and meaning are all inextricably connected.

7 Importation, estate distribution, and collecting all promote object mobility, resulting in intricate and far-reaching primary and secondary networks of goods and exchange. Even the term “importation” is more complicated than we tend to admit. Rarely did an object proceed directly from the point of production to the point of purchase or consumption. Rather, there were a series of incremental steps and a variety of different agents in the marketing and distribution of an object. As we develop a larger global sense of such figures as Elihu Yale (born in Boston, employee of the East India Company and Governor of Madras and then a member of the English gentry), Christian Herter (a German-born and trained cabinetmaker in New York City who also had close ties with the French art world and market of the 1870s), or even rural New Englanders who purchased salt-glazed stoneware in the early 1740s or Japanese decorative objects in the 1870s, we gain a more complex understanding of the circulation of household things. The movement of an object is central to “the social life” of that object; movement allows an object to accrue meaning (Appadurai 1986).

8 Objects can also be given away as gifts or descend through generations and over vast space. The purchasing of imported ceramics and textiles from distant lands is commonly understood, but less noticed are the kinds of personal possessions that are shipped to other regions or continents when estates are divided. The partability of estates has also meant that sets of dishes or even objects like highboys are often broken up and sent in different directions. Such familial distribution has tended to attract the interest of scholars interested in provenance documentation or the genealogical descent of a specific object, but has rarely been used as a means to explore larger networks of circulation and shifting meanings. The development of collections by those seeking iconic or exotic objects, or even whole architectural interiors, has provided another means for the distribution of second-hand goods. Even seemingly immovable objects such as houses, outbuildings, gravestones, or monuments, are not necessarily fixed to a particular place. They can be moved, reorganized, and repurposed; some can even be cannibalized to provide materials for another type of object. American colonial timber-framed structures have often been moved whole or disassembled with the parts reused for new construction. Even gravestones, which seem so inviolable, have been rearranged in tidy rows or moved to different burial grounds in the early 19th century and subject to vandalism and theft in the late 20th century. Some colonial gravestones have even been found being used as coffee table tops.

9 If objects are not static, neither are their users and viewers. From the small-scale mobility of the householder who engages with the objects in his or her domestic space from varying directions to the far-reaching mobility of the world traveller accompanied by luggage that takes on new meanings in different settings, motion often mediates our encounters with material culture. The three-dimensionality of objects can enhance this effect: objects have different sides and may have multiple parts and interiors as well as exteriors. Even when an object is stationary in a museum, a visitor may walk around it and perceive it from different perspectives, and it may change its meaning in juxtaposition with nearby objects that slide in and out of view. Mobile viewers and users thus have access to different interpretations of a single object, challenging the tendency to privilege a particular viewpoint. The political possibilities of multiple viewpoints are central to postcolonial studies, and sculpture historians have begun to explore the productive relationship between movement around objects, movement of objects, and trans-cultural and -global movement (Edwards 2010: 153).

10 Thinking about objects in motion thus invites us to reconsider the concept of movement, in both its literal and abstract interpretations. “Movement” is the word we use to talk about united efforts to bring about change. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a movement is “a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas” (OED, 2nd ed., rev., s.v. “movement”). Scholars of material culture are very familiar with this definition of a movement. For example, when the labels “Arts and Crafts” and “Modern” are attached to the word “movement,” we understand that the word suggests a broad shift in the political, social, and aesthetic conditions of the production and consumption of artifacts. In this collective sense, movement implies the force of numbers in effecting change.

11 Because it allows people and things to have an impact on the world around them, movement is often associated with agency. In particular, being active is contrasted with being passive, an opposition frequently invoked in art history’s attention to the gaze. Observations about the active viewing subject and the passive viewed object are often political—for example, in feminist analyses of artworks. The conceptual connection between movement, action, and power can also be productively applied to three-dimensional objects.

12 To demonstrate the multi-faceted significance of the concept of movement, we can consider the example of the Women’s Suffrage movement in early 20th-century Britain. In the suffragist demonstrations, banners took the place of the weapons of war and conquest. Banners had been used by the trade unions for some time, and the suffragists followed that precedent, but in doing so they made a specific political statement. Banner-making enabled women to make use of a traditionally feminine craft, needlework, to construct weapons for their own political ends. Needlework—conventionally something that was intended to keep women occupied in domestic space—was transformed into a medium that could not only work toward women’s political emancipation, but be physically carried outside the home into the public arena (see Tickner 1987, esp. 60-73).

13 In military contexts we talk of troops being mobilized; similarly, suffragist banners mobilized those who supported the right of women to vote. One participant commented on “the amazing spectacle of two miles of women” (Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence quoted in Tickner 1987: 47); but it was not simply the fact that there were so many of them. It was that the formerly static and passive were forced into motion behind the banners.

14 As the photographs of the suffrage demonstrations reveal, the banners themselves are intended for movement. One of the banner designers declared that they were meant “to float in the wind, to flicker in the breeze” (Mary Lowndes quoted in Tickner 1987: 66). And indeed, this potential for movement—for change—contributed to their efficacy. The banners thus became objects in motion on several levels: they waved in the breeze, were carried along from place to place as portable symbols, and represented a movement that sought to enforce social and political change.

15 During the 2011-2012 academic year, the Material Culture Study Group focused upon the movement of objects over time and space with an eye towards issues of meaning, memory, and identity, seeking to gain a better sense of the complexity of three-dimensional works within their own logic of circulation rather than within a static presentation that offers a single fixed image of an object. The following essays provide rich case studies of this intent to broaden the notion of mobility as it pertains to material culture.

Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bair, Jennifer, ed. 2009. Frontiers of Commodity Chain Research. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Batkin, Jonathan. 2008. The Native American Curio Trade in New Mexico. Santa Fe, NM: Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
Bellion, Wendy and Monica Dominguez Torres. 2011. Editors’ Introduction. Winterthur Portfolio 45 (2/3): 101-106.
Bush, Donald. 1975. The Streamlined Decade. New York: Braziller.
Crill, Rosemary. 2008. Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West. London: V & A Publishing.
Edwards, Jason. 2010. Introduction: From the East India Company to the West Indies and Beyond: The World of British Sculpture, c. 1757–1947. Visual Culture in Britain 11 (2): 147-72.
Quimby, Ian, ed. 1984. The Craftsman in Early America. New York: Norton.
Tickner, Lisa. 1987. The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-14. London: Chatto and Windus.
Ward, Gerald W. R., ed. 1977. The Eye of the Beholder: Fakes, Replicas, and Alterations in American Art. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery.
1 The theme follows up on the 2008 conference at the University of Delaware entitled Objects in Motion: Art and Material Culture Across Colonial North America. The intent of that conference was to expand the notion of Colonial America beyond a simple Anglo-American view and focus upon cultural identities. Several of the papers have recently been published in Winterthur Portfolio. See Bellion and Torres (2011: 101-106). In contrast to the historical questions addressed at that conference, we sought to delve into broader concepts of mobility and movement.