Material Culture & Me

Reading about material culture and its presentation as well as  the overall meaning that it’s trying to convey in this week’s readings got me thinking about a topic I just presented on in my junior seminar as well as the work I did over the summer as a docent in my hometown’s farmhouse museum.

In terms of my presentation, another classmate and myself presented on the Smithsonian’s two most controversial museum exhibits in recent memory: the West as America art exhibition and the Enola Gay exhibition (which never made it to public). Out of the many things that made these exhibits controversial, one of the most prominent critiques being made against both of them was that the framing of the exhibits respective narratives were too biased and the material items being used to represent these frameworks were being inappropriately used. For the West as America exhibit, the curators were accused of using the artwork in the exhibit to prop up the view that Native Americans were mistreated during European Americans’ quest for prosperity out West. For many people, the idea of using artwork (which they considered to be unbiased and/or untied to the exhibit’s purpose) as a means to get across a current political opinion, was uncalled for and anachronistic. Putting aside the fact that it is problematic to ask exhibits to remain unbiased since history itself is rarely unbiased (in addition to many other reasons), the idea of material culture being used in an active (potentially activist) manner is off-putting for a lot of people. While a huge chunk of art is deeply tied to politics, activism, emotion, and protest, the West as America exhibit was not allowed to frame its art pieces in the same way. The sense that there should be neutrality in history exhibits transferred over to the art exhibit.

When working as a docent this summer, I too found myself in situations where I had to work with the museum’s other docents/curators to figure out what would be most conducive to making it a fun learning space as well as one that was safe for people to walk around. Since we were dealing with a lot of heavy farming equipment as well as some more obscure items, we were constantly thinking about the framework we wanted to operate in. We also had to take into account what outside organizations, like the local public libraries, were doing with the museum as a historical site. The library decided to include us on its scavenger hunt, and we had to be prepared to explain the purpose of our museum as well as gear it towards the scavenger hunt at a moment’s notice.

Material culture is hard to work with because oftentimes there is this assumption that it is neutral and/or universal in meaning. This makes it hard to put it in a space where it challenges the positing that it has traditionally operated in. I would love to see more deviance from the static-ness of physical objects in time and space, I think it’s necessary.

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