The Importance of Physical Objects in Public History


Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is physical objects in Public History. I’m taking another class where we’ve been talking a lot about the physical monuments in relation to the memory of dead Presidents, and the interplay between the lifeless physical object and the alive passerby. With all of those things bubbling in my mind, it turned me back to Bryn Mawr’s own physical objects- namely Athena.

When my friend Anna Kalinsky class of 2015, a recent Bryn Mawr graduate, came back to campus, one of the first things she wanted to see was Athena. What makes this so? This culture that we have within our own community places value on this inanimate statue. It’s not even the original statue! Since 1996, the ‘real’ Athena has rested in Carpenter library, with a cast taking her rightful spot in Thomas Great Hall. Undergraduates frequently give this cast of Athena ‘offerings’, as if she was a real deity that had some profound impact on the way our lives could play out.

I think that the role of physical objects in public history is fascinating, mostly because the objects are given importance┬áby the society/community in certain contexts/spaces. Otherwise these objects would just remain objects! For example, with our own Athena, no one to my knowledge leaves the ‘real’ Athena offers. The interplay between the space of Thomas Great Hall and the cast of Athena creates this perceived importance that the community responds to. If one of these elements were to be altered, the discourse would change entirely.

Anna Kalinsky '15 and Athena posing for the camera.

Anna Kalinsky ’15 and Athena posing for the camera.