RESPONSE #3 – Leonie Hannan
As the new year approaches, it feels like a good time to think through the discussions we have had so far and to anticipate things to come. What have our 50 odd hours of collective object research told us?
On the one hand, we have been very busy – meeting, discussing, writing – and we have managed to document our activities as they have happened. But this frenetic doing has left us with many more uncertainties than it has done solutions. I think this is natural. In order to push forward, we have had to pare back. The necessity of returning again and again to the object itself has provoked a layering of questions, rather than a more linear pattern of incremental analysis. We are beginning to see the avenues we would naturally have taken, but have rejected in favour of pressing on with less familiar territory. And we now have a bit of time to think, before re-joining the choppy dialogue of meetings and responses in 2014; a brief pause in our cycle of repetition.
Our last meeting with Catherine Richardson tackled sensory experience and the every day. Far more than previous sessions, we dwelt on the particular concerns of the historian – trying to reach an obscure past through the medium of material things. For some of us, the theme of everyday domestic life resonated strongly with our research interests, and for others it was more tangential. After our intensive looking at the ten pound note in our meeting with D. Graham Burnett and Sal Randolph, this time the tenner remained peripheral to proceedings. Nevertheless, in talking through the difficulty of reconstructing the material actions of everyday life in a distant time or place, we could also have been talking about our bank note – being, as it is, ubiquitous and yet difficult to place.
So, moving on to a few of the thoughts that emerged from our discussion with Catherine:
Elin Jones acknowledges that, as researchers and practitioners, we find the allure of a category almost irresistible and yet, in her own object research, Elin has been struggling both to categorise her object and to work with the categories she has been given for it. Elin has found the album anomalous in its position within the UCL Art Museum’s collections and has also identified multiple organisational modes at work within the album itself. This chaos of badly fitting categories has clearly made Elin’s work more difficult, but by abandoning prescribed groupings she finds herself dealing with a much more expansive proposition for research.
The Felt Past
Catherine Richardson helped us to think about sensory experience in relation to the material world of domestic life. From this exploration of the quotidian, Elin concludes a need ‘to integrate the spatial, material, intellectual, and emotional’ to reduce our distance from the past. In a similar vein, Florian Roithmayr’s collage evokes the cosy nestling of an object within material folds and yet the object’s distinct colour creates a dis-juncture between it and its environment – demonstrating a distance that seems particularly resonant for researchers of obscure human experience.
Kate Smith picked up on this issue of experience by focusing on how we are all influenced by how we witness other people using objects. When we encounter a museum object in the context of its collection the conventions of use are, of course, very specific and often completely at odds with the conventions that might have surrounded an object in its former lives. Quoting Pamela Smith, Kate also emphasises the difference between knowledge that is gained through experience and knowledge that is ‘discursive’ or ‘propositional’ (usually textual). She proposes that reconstruction might be a very useful tool to the researcher wishing to delve into the experiential side of life in the past – a way to ‘unpick the tacit knowledge of use contained within the object’.
Vocabularies for Material Culture
Emily Orr makes a valuable point about the role language plays in the distance or proximity a researcher might feel in relation to their study of material culture. Having squarely taken up the challenge of 100 Hours, Emily chose to research an object that was entirely outside of her field of experience: a ten-legged African stool. In so doing, Emily admits that she lacks the words to describe and understand the domestic life of the stool’s place of origin. In an inventive attempt to circumvent this absence of words, she has explored a new vocabulary used to describe this type of stool – one of contemporary interior design, gleaned from the internet and relating to a Western appropriation of the object. Locating her stool within this alternative, domestic environment – one that is more intelligible to the researcher – is certainly one way of tackling the problem of distance and unfamiliarity.
Gaps in Belief & Everyday Life
A feeling of distance also came through very strongly in James Paz’ reflection on Catherine Richardson’s session – a distance that seemed particularly acute when considering an object that was highly familiar and domestically situated to its Ancient Egyptian makers and owners. James takes this proposition one step further, by suggesting that even if he could accurately imagine the living space of the oracular bust – he would be an ‘imposter’ in that place. James has also usefully emphasised the issue of ‘gaps in belief’ – the difficulty researchers have in meaningfully connecting with belief systems that are foreign to them. This is a difficulty that extends beyond the study of material things, but seems particularly pertinent to the purpose of 100 Hours. By the time we have clocked up many hours with our chosen objects we will be personally deeply familiar with their physical form, but will this help us understand them any better?
Mat Paskins reflects on Carolyn Steedman’s understanding of the work of domestic labour in relation to the work of the historian – both being ‘surrounded by traces of endless domestic obstructions’. But how can we use these traces to bridge our ‘gaps in knowing, doing, and believing’? Mat proposes that we are dealing with the difference between wonder and knowing, but whilst many of us are seeking knowledge through a close communion with a particular thing – he is not convinced it can bring us answers.
Spaces & Absences
Both Katy Barrett and Sarah Longair have been thinking about their objects by considering the different spaces they might have occupied in their lifetime. For Sarah, this process took her from the collectors of specimens themselves, to the spaces of natural history societies and auction houses. Katy made the transition from thinking about her object from the perspective of a ‘printing space’, where their metal plates would have combined with paper to make impressions for the pages of newspapers, to the way reading a printed weather map changed people’s relationships with climate. Tullia Giersberg’s contribution shifted the emphasis from what was on the page to what was not – thinking about absence ‘as a starting point, not a narrative gap to be filled’. She identifies the way academic research tends ‘to privilege grand critical narratives over the patchwork of relationships and meaning within which things exist.’ The elusive nature of this ‘patchwork’ is certainly a central message of Catherine Richardson’s work, but one that presents us with a seductive challenge.
But just for now this challenge can wait – to be resumed in 2014 – and on behalf of the 100 Hours team I wish you a very Happy New Year!