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 by 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.

5 thoughts on “The Importance of Physical Objects in Public History

  1. You raise some deep and provocative issues, ones that I’ve been looking at for more than fifteen years. I’m a Haverford alum (’72) and lived on the BMC campus in the first coed dorms for three years. I produced and directed the documentary film Objects and Memory, a national prime time PBS presentation. It looks at the otherwise ordinary things in our homes and museums that mean the most to us, because of their associations with people, events, and places. Since the release of the film I’ve been speaking at colleges and museums across the country about we respond to history as its happening and why we imbue things with value.

    Physical things can connect us across time, space, and culture. We navigate through a material world through their preservation and use.

    • Thank you! I find it interesting as well. I’m grappling with my own interpretations of physical objects having a profound influence on how I perceive the world around me. The question of ‘What would you grab from your house if it was on fire, and you could only carry one thing?’ comes to mind. I doubt that the item I would chose would have any value in a practical sense, but rather an emotional connection that has some higher value to myself.

      • That’s exactly the question that eminent historian Ed Linenthal asks at the end of Objects and Memory, and one I pose to audiences at my presentations. If it is irreplaceable, it is precious – to you.

        • Thanks for your ideas, Angela–how might Athena function as an object of our scrutiny?

          Jon, thanks for being in touch–we’ll connect you with Bryn Mawr’s museum studies program for more discussion.

          • I think in regards to us, specifically, because we can be seen as a force outside of traditional academia that is circulating historical facts and knowledge of this ‘monument’, we would be falling under the discipline of public history. This would make it important to us because of 1) the experience we have of Athena within undergraduate communities and 2) the experience that we will have when students graduate, as well as the information circulating around it.

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