What does it mean to exhibit material culture? What often comes to my mind is an object stuck behind a glass case or up on a wall in a cold and uninviting space, with only a small block of text offering a singular, linear account of its story. Where did this framework for history-making come from and what purpose does it serve?
Let’s consider Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s chapter “Objects of Ethnography” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (edited by Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine). In it, the author defines an object in situ as “a part that stands in contiguous relation to an absent whole that may or may not be recreated” (388). The act of exhibition is often one of erecting artificial context around de-contextualized material. As such, one finds that museums, galleries and similar sites are simultaneously performative and voyeuristic – a space wherein a thing (or person) may be positioned, watched, known and classified in an intangible stream of consciousness curated by interpreters and fit into historical and aesthetical systems.
"Chinese woman and child in San Francisco, 1889" GIPHY. Accessed March 6, 2019. https://giphy.com/gifs/vintage3d-black-and-white-3d-SAJlLdrhzzmPm.
Let’s return to a previous post. I attempted to define “clothes,” “clothing,” “style,” “fashion,” and “costume” – differentiating between seemingly synonymous subjects for the sake of historical (or anthropological) study. Using the Oxford Dictionary and Daniel Miller’s chapter “Why Clothing is Not Superficial” in Stuff, I settled on the following:
Clothes: items worn to cover the body
Clothing: clothes collectively
Style: the wearing of clothing, hair, and accessories in a manner unique to an individual body.
Fashion: a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, accessories, or behavior; the collective following of a trend; the production and marketing of said styles and trends.
Costume: a set of clothes in a style typical of or popular in a particular country or historical period.
While Miller, an anthropologist, concerns himself with the study of clothing – its popularity and how it is worn or used – historians lay claim to the study of costume – drawn to the term for its use of periodization, then versus now. In my previous post, I argued that historians tend to study fashion. Working with extant primary sources (often what was sent to archives by wealthy donors), they focus on clothing that was popular or, rather, well-documented – typical of a small and privileged demographic (such as white, upper-class women) – rather than what was commonly worn in a certain context.