“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 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.
Towards the end of our talk, Dr. Ott sagely proclaimed that we live our lives through things, objects, and stuff. The physical world is filled with tangible representations of everyday meaning-making – both sacred and profane. Imbued with this consciousness, I was set to task reflecting on the unattainable and the unknowable – researching the stuff from our past for which we have no backstory, as well as that which is lost, destroyed, or simply nonexistent.
There’s a pathos to processing. When I first arrived, Dr. Ott had just returned from Casper, Wyoming. She had met with Matthew Shepard’s parents about donating some of their son’s belongings to the National Museum of American History. By the end of the week, we were bringing up boxes of materials. Inside were hundreds of condolence letters and printed emails, sweaters and a pair of worn shoes, teeth molds for braces, elementary school projects and report cards. The most moving item of all – a ring that Matthew had bought, imagining that he might one day find someone to give it to.
For the next few days, I had the privilege of perusing some of the queer collections that Dr. Ott has acquired over the years – including myriad vintage activist buttons and (my personal favorite) a leather harness. I’ve also attended several orientations and meetings, and connected with dozens of staff members, fellows and other interns. Just this past weekend, I rode on the back of a flatbed truck during the Capital Pride Parade as a part of Smithsonian GLOBE – the institution’s LGBTQ employees and allies organization.
Currently, I’m assisting Dr. Ott by following some research leads in preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising and the public programming she has planned. We’ll be highlighting instances of activism that preceded and succeeded the event, such as a police raid on a 1965 costume party hosted by San Francisco’s Council on Religion and the Homosexual and the origins of the iconic rainbow flag.
Back in March, I met Dr. Ott for the first time after attending a talk she gave at the Mütter Museum in Philly. Afterwards, she took me on an impromptu research and collection trip around the city. One of our stops was the home of Mark Segal, founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News. Among Mark's possessions was a pink and yellow star – a concentration camp badge for a gay Jew. Without any provenance for this item, we have no way of knowing if it is authentic. Examinations of chemical elements, fabric, dye and stitching patterns were inconclusive. It could be a real Holocaust artifact or, for all we know, it could be part of a costume from the movie Bent. If only curators really were psychometrists.
But does it ultimately matter? Mark had imbued this object with so much meaning as a gay Jewish activist that it has taken on a whole new historical significance. Its potential connection to a single historical event does not define its "worthiness" for incorporation into the NMAH collections. Rather, it is important because it was rendered such by a historical figure – a symbol of his identity and one facet of a vibrant story that curators get to tell.