Is all material culture sentimental – with value based on subjective feelings and perspectives surrounding particular historical events or contexts? From production to consumption, everyday items don’t typically find themselves preserved, exhibited, or interpreted based on utility alone. As Karin Dannehl demonstrates in “Object Biographies: From Production to Consumption,” in History and Material Culture: A Students Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (edited by Karen Harvey), their stories are mostly unknowable, with ambiguous starts and ends.
Still, this absence doesn’t prevent us from historicizing material culture’s worth, and the ideas that created it. Take, for example, a giant pumpkin – its girth only matched by the bulk of its significance, as Cindy Ott explains in “Object Analysis of the Giant Pumpkin.” Since colonization, the pumpkin has symbolized Europeans' romanticization of American land – its “untamed” state and abundance. From Renaissance art to mid-twentieth-century television specials, the pumpkin has taken on various forms and meanings.
"The Notorious Bettie Page, 2005" GIPHY. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://giphy.com/gifs/QmKEe9jP9zNBLBrRJz.
What is a “fetish?” Traditionally speaking, it’s a material object with spiritual power. The word comes from the Portuguese feitiço for “charm” and Latin facere, “to make” – attributed to sailors in the 1600s who dismissed the worldviews of the West African peoples with whom they traded. Nowadays, however, “fetish” has a sexual connotation – thanks to English sexologist Havelock Ellis. By 1901, “certain perversions of the sexual instinct, the person, part of the body, or particular object belonging to the person by whom the impulse is excited” were considered a fetish.
But let’s return to the original definition. As Peter Stallybrass discusses in his essay “Marx’s Coat” in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (edited by Patricia Spyer), Europeans had a tendency to essentialize the commodities in which they traded. Believing something like gold had inherent worth, they naively exchanged things like beads in an effort to “dupe” people from other cultures into accepting “lesser” goods (186). They couldn’t conceive of a world in which an object’s value proceeded from the people producing and consuming it – they didn’t understand that all value is inherently subjective, especially when it comes to material culture.
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.