, , , , , , ,

Chinese Export Porcelain bowl for the American market, 1790-1810. RIHS collection

Chinese Export Porcelain bowl for the American market, 1790-1810. RIHS collection

I went to Newport yesterday for a History Space program on material culture. I don’t know why I  was nervous, really, because I love stuff. I try not to accumulate too much stuff in my own life, and to be a careful curator, but really: beautiful objects make me really happy, and I love talking about “the thingness of things.”

Living history is fun for me for a lot of reasons, some esoteric and personal. I spent a lot of time in school thinking about images of America, and what they meant (it was the age of semiotics and Derrida) so creating living history personae and clothes and based on images and research is a way of making art of history, or else dressing up in funny clothes and enjoying loud noises.

Historical research is most fun when it asks questions– the journey is as good as the destination–and there are good questions to ask the things you carry with you or use in living history. (They’re probably good to ask if you’re in a mood to downsize at home, too.)

  • What is it?
  • When was it made?
  • Who made it?
  • What is it made of? Where did the materials come from?
  • Where did you get it? When did you get it?
  • How does it work, what does it do?
  • What does it mean to you?

If you can answer those questions, you’ll be a lot closer to knowing the why of what you have.

It’s the stories we tell about our objects that give them meaning: sometimes it’s who made or used a thing, sometimes the story has a meaning that you can’t tell from the object itself.

Think of this: I crossed the Pell bridge last night to come home, the road climbing into a storm cloud, the car lashed with rain and wind on a road surface daguerrotype-reflective and hard to read. The buffeting gusts on the car reminded me of the carpenter who didn’t like crossing the bridge to work in Portsmouth. Still, he told a story about crossing the bridge in storm on a motorcycle, with a girl riding behind him. The wind would rise, you’d both get scared, and she’d squeeze closer. He shivered inside his t-shirt as he told the story, with a tiny smile, and you knew he’d gone to Newport in that weather, on that bike, with that girl, on purpose.

You’d never get that story just from a jacket, a helmet, or a bike, but somewhere, there’s a object tied to that story.