“The Past is entombed in the Present! The world is its own enduring monument; and that which is true of its physical, is likewise true of its mental career. The discoveries of Psychometry will enable us to explore the history of man, as those of geology enable us to explore the history of the earth.” – Joseph Rodes Buchanan, Manual of Psychometry: the Dawn of a New Civilization
Since arriving at the Smithsonian, I’ve been preoccupied with a fanciful notion – curators are like psychometrists. Psychometry, pioneered by physician-cum-spiritualist Joseph Rodes Buchanan in the nineteenth century, is the supposed ability to consume an object’s history via physical contact. In lieu of touch, however, we can excavate memory and meaning, provenance and perspective from the material culture we acquire through careful research and interpersonal connections.
Thanks to my advisor, Dr. Katherine Ott, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for material culture over these past few weeks. On my first day, we had an intensive conversation about our work, history and philosophy. She told me about the material culture class she teaches, and how she urges her students to recognize the ways we (sub)consciously organize our lives. Everything from identifying something in the fridge as edible to choosing a seat on the Metro – we engage senses like sight, smell, and taste to concoct categories like color, location, and utility.
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