Welcome to Learning from Things

a talk with Prof. Aaron Glass....

posted on 25 Oct 2012 11:58 by Elena Pinto Simon

EPS: Congratulations, Prof. Glass, on the NEH grant for the Boas project. Can you tell us about what the project will involve?

AG: In 1897, anthropologist Franz Boas published his major monograph, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, a synthesis of his first decade of research on the Northwest Coast and one of the first holistic ethnographies based on field work. The text brought together data on social structure with art and material culture, detailed narratives in the Kwak’wala language, photographs taken in situ in British Columbia and at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, transcribed songs, eye-witness description of ceremonial performances, and extensive contributions from Boas’s indigenous collaborator George Hunt. Yet the report remained incomplete and fractured, and archival materials relevant to its origins and afterlives are scattered all over the world. This material includes original field notes by Boas and Hunt, museum collections records, original photographic negatives, and wax cylinder recordings of music. The goal of this collaborative project is to produce an annotated, critical digital edition that will reunite the archival material with the original text and with the indigenous families whose cultural heritage is represented. This will be an unprecedented effort within anthropology and the humanities, promising new ways of using digital media to link together disparate archives, museums, textual repositories, and contemporary Native communities in order to produce a critical historiography of the book as well as to recuperate long dormant ethnographic records.

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EPS: As a cultural anthropologist, you bring a particular perspective to our notion of material culture studies. How do you see this in the larger framework of the mission of the BGC?

AG: As I understand our institutional history, we have embraced ever more encompassing categories to describe the subset of objects in the world that fall under our scholarly purview. “Material culture” is potentially the broadest, although different disciplines have construed this term in unique ways. Within anthropology, the term was used in the late 19th century to refer mostly to technology, clothing and architecture—the vernacular “stuff” of everyday life—as opposed to “decorative arts” or, a bit later, just “art.” This was a time when the academic discipline was thoroughly integrated with museums. By the early decades of the 20th century, professional anthropology became more entrenched in the university and material culture studies declined to some degree (although anthropological archaeology continued to consider it primary subject matter). In recent decades, however, material culture studies within anthropology has made a dramatic comeback, in part I think as a response and corrective to the dominant “linguistic turn” in the human sciences during the mid 20th century. But the newer material culture studies are much more eclectic and inclusive in terms of the “material” in question; while some scholars do still focus on quotidian objects (especially commodities), the category has also expanded to encompass fine art itself as one type of material cultural production among many. Unlike much material culture studies emerging out of art history, history, or archaeology, anthropologists tend to work with living populations and to analyze the material world not as a window into past cultures but as a component of present ones. As an anthropologist at the BGC, I see my main contribution to the institutional mission as grounded in three related realms: I teach anthropological history and theory of the object and the museum; I help students use ethnographic methods to work with living communities of object producers or consumers; and I teach courses on non-Western material culture, especially that of Native North Americans.

EPS: Our students come from a range of backgrounds when they enter the MA program. How has this
been a help in getting people to think across disciplines?

AG: One of the great things about teaching at the BGC is that students challenge me to situate anthropological perspectives—the kinds of things I might otherwise take for granted—within the whole constellation of disciplinary approaches we embrace. When I use terms such as “agency” or “structure” or “primitivism,” students call up their exposure to such terms in different courses and inquire into the conceptual relation between them. While this can have the effect of retrenching disciplinary boundaries, more often than not it serves to bridge them, to communicate to the students (and to the faculty!) that we are all circling around a common set of scholarly problems using different tools, whether these tools are theoretical, methodological, or terminological. While this can happen in other institutional spaces, it tends to happen most often in the classroom and is largely driven by student attempts to harmonize their experiences across courses and topics and disciplinary frameworks. We also have the flexibility to team-teach courses here, which allows us to build interdisciplinary approaches into the curriculum more strategically. This has greatly benefited me as a scholar and faculty member as it has, I expect, the students as well.

EPS: You are currently team-teaching a course with Prof. Whalen. Can you tell us a little bit about how that evolved?

AG: Individually, Prof. Whalen and I have worked extensively with photographs and the material contexts for their circulation (from family albums to ethnographic exhibits, respectively). Given extensive student interest in photography as related to many of the other kinds of things we teach about here, we decided to pool our resources and offer a course tailored to the unique concerns of the BGC. In our course, entitled “Picturing Things: Photography as Material Culture,” we privilege an approach to photographs as objects rather than just as images. In a way, we offer a kind of alternative history of photography through the lens of material culture studies—both in terms of using photographs as material evidence for analyzing past social practice, and in terms of understanding photography as a mode of cultural production in the present. To the more standard themes and landmarks in photography’s history we bring our personal and disciplinary perspectives—Prof. Whalen’s as a specialist in American Studies and in vernacular craft traditions, and mine as an Anthropologist with a focus on non-Western subjects in and producers of photographs.


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Our house

posted on 24 Oct 2012 12:11 by Elena Pinto Simon

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Sunday was the first (of three) Open Houses at the BGC. A chance for interested potential students to come and listen to our Dean, Peter Miller, and a number of our faculty talk about their work at the BGC. (This past Sunday faculty included Ivan Gaskell, Andrew Morrall, Ulrich Leben, and Chair Jeffrey Collins). Each talked about their own scholarly backgrounds and interests, and presented an object that they brought along to discuss…. a lively discussion followed, both among the faculty and with our guests.

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The rest of the program included a tour of the building, including the Digital Media Lab and Library, led by PhD student Tom Tredway, and a guided tour of the Circus exhibition, led by MA student Suky Kang.There was also time for lots of questions about everything from financial aid to the application process itself.

And, as has become a BGC tradition, these Sunday mornings are catered by Zabar’s!

We videotaped this session, and soon it will be posted to our website…I’ll post when it is available for viewing – so if you couldn’t come, you can still get a strong sense of what the day was like.

There are two more of these events upcoming – November 11 and December 2nd. Both are from 11-1pm. Both will start in our Lecture Hall. I think they are the single best way to see what life at the BGC is all about.

Come to our house!


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a conversation with Prof. Simpson...

posted on 23 Oct 2012 14:07 by Elena Pinto Simon

EPS: Professor Simpson, how did your summer research in Turkey go this year?

ES: Very well, thank you. I worked in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, and also the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, researching and documenting the wooden objects from the tumulus burials P, W, and K-III, as well as the city mound at Gordion. All these finds are from the tombs and palace of the Phrygian kings of Gordion and date to the 8th century BC—the period of King Midas and his predecessors. I am now in the final stages of preparation for my second volume on the Gordion wooden objects, and this summer I measured, photographed, and drew many objects in both museums. These included several large pieces of furniture and also small items, such as a parasol, plates, boxes, and a collection of delightful toy wooden animals.

EPS: This has been a project of long-standing for you. Can you tell us a little about the whole project, and how it has evolved over the years?

ES: A long project indeed—I have been working on the wooden objects from Gordion since 1978, which now seems like ancient history. I began when I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, hired as an illustrator to prepare the final drawings for the posthumous publication of my professor, Rodney Young, director of the Gordion excavations—who died in a tragic car accident soon after I arrived at the University Museum. This was his excavation report, Three Great Early Tumuli, which recorded the excavation and finds from Tumulus MM, P, and W at Gordion. The rarest objects from these tombs were made of wood, which was quite well preserved considering that it was buried—and that two of the tombs had collapsed, crushing many of the burial goods within them.

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As I was inking the final drawings for the publication I discovered many errors, which were apparent when comparing the field drawings with the in situ photographs. This was par for the course, since the early drawings were done quickly at the time of excavation, with the presumption that they would be revised for the final publication. Unfortunately, Young’s death intervened. Since we now had a book to produce, I did my best with the illustrations, but it was decided that the wooden objects should be restudied, and I was asked to direct the project. I assembled a team of conservators, archaeologists, scientists, artists, and preparators—and we went to work.

After more than three decades the team has completed the conservation of the wood, the piecing together and drawing of more than 100 objects, the reconstruction of several large pieces of furniture on Plexiglas mounts for display in the Ankara Museum, and the creation of a complete written and photographic record detailing the project. I have published the spectacular wooden furniture from Tumulus MM (Brill 2010), which belonged to King Midas and his father Gordias, and I am now preparing the publication of the remaining wooden objects from the site. For a full overview, I can recommend the Wikipedia article on the subject:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordion_Furniture_and_Wooden_Artifacts

EPS: You are a trained archeologist. Can you talk a little about how that is a match for the work you do here at the BGC?

ES: At the BGC, since we are concerned with the history of art, design, and craft, and the social and historical context of objects, archaeology fits in very well. The job of the archaeologist is to dig up the evidence for ancient society in the form of architectural remains and artifacts, and to interpret the artifacts according to information gleaned from a wide variety of sources—and this can only be done by consulting many colleagues from numerous fields. It is a highly interdisciplinary proposition—a perfect match for our aims and interests at the BGC.

Furniture has been important throughout history, and has always been highly valued—both because of its practical nature and also as a vehicle for impressing one’s subjects, allies, and adversaries. Although traditional art historical inquiry does not normally include the study of furniture, we know better—the history of furniture is one of the things we teach at the BGC. Wood rarely survives from antiquity, however, except in Egypt, where the climate has served to preserve organic finds. Nonetheless, information about ancient furniture can be found, when one really decides to look. Once I began to study the wooden furniture from Gordion, a whole new world opened up to me, and this world was fascinating. I am happy to be working in an environment where the subject is appreciated—and where students can get as excited as I am about a table or a stool.

EPS: How has your own work evolved in the years you’ve been at the BGC?

ES: I am very happy to be associated with the BGC. For one thing, I teach my favorite topics: ancient jewelry, metalwork, ceramics, glass, furniture, and the beginnings of art and technology. For another, I was lucky to be able to organize the 1995 symposium “The Spoils of War—World War II and Its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property.” I am grateful to Susan Weber for the idea and the support of the institution. Following this, I embarked upon an extended program of research (still ongoing) on the protection of cultural objects and sites, the devastating effects of war and looting, and the importance of ethical policy in the acquisition of art. I now teach a course called “Issues in the Study of Ancient Art” with my colleague François Louis; there is no shortage of breaking news to keep this course current… Finally, early on, I was asked to teach “The Rediscovery of Antiquity,” starting with the ancient world and addressing its “rediscovery” right up to the present. This has been immensely illuminating and has given me a different view of how we know what we think we know about the past.

EPS: You’ve been at the BGC from just about the beginning. How do you see that the BGC has changed over that period of time?

ES: In fact, I have been at the BGC exactly from the beginning. Initially we had a very small permanent faculty and many guest lecturers who specialized predominantly in the history of the decorative arts. Since that time, we have become a large and talented faculty and administration with a great many interests and areas of expertise—from archaeology and anthropology to design, cultural history, film and photography, and the fine and decorative arts. And obviously much more. Our students have been uniformly excellent since the day we opened our doors, and they still arrive with a great variety of backgrounds and academic experience. It is the enthusiasm and intelligence of the students who study in our program that makes teaching at the BGC so special.


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Tags: ancientjewelry ceramics culturalhistory design film furniture glass gordian metalwork midas photography technology tumulus turkey


ex libris....

posted on 21 Oct 2012 14:36 by Elena Pinto Simon

We celebrated the BGC Library last week, and it was quite a party!

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The BGC Library staff, key players in community-building at the BGC, ran an Ex Libris Day, the first of what we hope will be an annual event. Students saw demonstrations of a range of cataloguing systems, and got to try them out, there was a book sale, a pizza lundh, an exhibition in our special collections room, and a great deal of
good will and fun throughout the day.

Thanks to Heather Topcik and her team for making this event so successful.


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Tags: booksale ex library libris specialcollections


run away and join our circus...

posted on 19 Oct 2012 12:36 by Elena Pinto Simon

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Curatorial Fellow Matt Wittmann led BGC guests, faculty , students and staff in a wonderful “day at the circus” on Monday, October 15th, as part of our Scholars Day and Symposium on The Circus and the City Exhibition, now up in the BGC Main Gallery.

In the morning session, Matt led an extended tour and talk about the history of the circus in New York City with a group of invited scholars. This lively session took us through the whole process of this major exhibition – from early planning stages to its final form as installed.

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After lunch, the group joined a larger audience that included students , visitors and other faculty, for a symposium on the history of the American circus.

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This material culture-driven exhibition approaches the circus from multiple perspectives, centering on the role of circus in the City of New York, from its earliest manifestations in the late 1790’s through to the heyday of the circus in the ‘50s and the contemporary circus. It runs until February 3rd.

If you are in town, stop by and join our circus for an afternoon!


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Tags: circus cityofnewyork materialculture mattwittmann scholarsday symposium


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