I’ve had more alone time than usual at work, which is to say, I’ve been the only living creature in 16,000 SF for multiple consecutive days, which allows me both time to get lots of work done but also permits my mind to wander more than it might otherwise. One of the ideas I continually return to is about the objectification of objects. That’s a terrible phrase, isn’t it? What is the essential thingness of any given thing?
Let’s take chairs: I really like chairs, which is to say that I have, at last, succumbed to the seductive qualities of chairs.[i] But what makes a chair a chair?
Most simply, a chair is to be sat upon. Keeps your rump off the cold, cold ground. Supports your legs and back. Sometimes a chair is for lolling. Sometimes it’s for working. Sometimes it’s for projecting power. But essential, a chair is for sitting.
If use– specifically human use[ii]– is what chairs are for, what happens when a chair is removed from use, and placed on display in a museum?[iii] And what difference does it make whether that chair is on a white plinth in an art museum, or in a historic house, or in the historic house where it was used? When is a chair most a chair, other than the times you are sitting in one?
As I said: a lot of alone time.
Within a historic house, it seems that the ideal situation is the chair in the room in the house.
That would seem to maximize the “realness” of the thing, right? But we don’t always have the chair, and even when we do, we may not know which room it was used in most often.
The way a chair is displayed and understood in an art museum: Object of Beauty is very different from the way a chair is displayed and understood in a history: Who Sat Here? It’s a conundrum though, because just as the chair become Beautiful Thing in an art museum, it can become Story from the Past in a history museum. Neither presentation/interpretation really gets at Chairness, which is really best experienced by sitting in the chair yourself.
Did I mention I spend a lot of time alone with objects?
The way that I think these questions about Chairness relate to living history is by realizing that just as museums fetishize objects on white pedestals, living history interpreters/reenactors sometimes fetishize objects without contextualizing them. You know: Muskets. Clothes. Spinning Wheels.[iv]
Putting the chair in the room where it was used gives it context, and the visitor a new perspective that wouldn’t be gained from a white pedestal, or from the curb. The same is true of the things that we carry as interpreters. Context matters. It’s how meaning is derived and understood. Like repetition, isolation can rob an object—or a person—of meaning. Not that I’m lonely. I have all those chairs, after all.
[i] Not to get too weird, though: I won’t rhapsodize (yet) about the sensual curve of a chair leg, or a delicate, finely-turned ankle, as I have heard some (fetishistic?) curators so. Yet: there’s still time.
[ii] Sorry cats: chairs were not actually made for you. Now get down!
[iii] If you know anything about art history and theory, you can probably guess which decade I was in graduate seminars.
[iv] My *favorite* thing to see in a military setting.