Welcome to Learning from Things

approaching the solstice...

posted on 17 Dec 2012 19:05 by Elena Pinto Simon

As You Like It,

Act II, Scene VII

[Blow, blow, thou winter wind]

by William Shakespeare

(Lord Amiens, a musician, sings before Duke Senior's company)

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,


Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That does not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing …

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a talk with Prof. Catherine Whalen...

posted on 06 Dec 2012 21:18 by Elena Pinto Simon

EPS: Hello, Prof. Whalen. You were on leave last year and you’ve been working on a book project, yes?
Can you tell us a little about it?

CW: I’d love to. My current book project is Refined Materials for a Modern Nation: Francis P. Garvan, the Chemical Industry and the Politics of Collecting American Antiques in the Interwar United States. The overarching objective is to show how human agents deploy objects to perform what I call “material politics;” that is, enact political agendas and operate as a significant form of cultural power. I do so through a case study of Francis P. Garvan, who gave his outstanding collection of American decorative arts to Yale University with an explicit ideological aim: to instill patriotism as a bulwark against socialism and communism. Informing this imperative were his public service in WWI; participation in the Red Scare after WWI, which targeted alleged anarchists and “Bolsheviks;” and championship of the US chemical industry, which he saw as the best defense against the “menace” of Germany’s resurgent industrial expansion and future chemical warfare capabilities. Elucidating how he interconnected his political and collecting agendas, and analyzing the result, forms the crux of this project. By doing so, I offer a new perspective on the promotion of object-centered cultural nationalism in the interwar US.

Refined Materials for a Modern Nation also offers a new methodology for studying collectors and collections. I interpret collections as material narratives: meaningful sequences of objects created by selecting and placing things in particular relationships to one another, whether spatial, textual, or indexical. I position collectors as narrative agents of artifactual autobiographies, which I interpret in relation to other forms of self-representation, such as portraits, photographs, speeches, letters, publications, scrapbooks, genealogies, wills, and commissioned replicas of especially meaningful artifacts. I conceptualize collecting via the metaphor of alchemy, a transformative process through which individual subjects marshal groups of things to tangibly render abstract constructs including history, posterity, and morality as well as personal identity vis-à-vis race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, and nation. I demonstrate how individual subjects attach immaterial values to material culture, and how, in turn, objects accrue, enact, and retain or shed cultural meanings.

This project concludes with an examination of how the professionalization of new scholarship that undergird collections like Garvan’s contributed to the formation of American material culture studies. I discuss how, as a result of shifting academic discourses, objects preserved in institutional collections become especially powerful actors in changing interpretive dramas throughout their prolonged lifetimes. Ultimately, the key to the longstanding influence of Garvan’s collection—as well as many other collections of early American decorative arts—has been its ideological malleability within a framework of cultural nationalism far broader than that of its originator, while still bearing the imprint of his material politics.


EPS: You are teaching a new course this term, with Prof. Glass, on Photography as Material Culture. What about this topic interests you?
CW: Photography, like material culture, has been studied from so many different perspectives, which makes it especially though-provoking to explore in one’s own research and with students. Aaron’s work with photography as an anthropologist has been a very productive counterpoint to mine as a cultural historian specializing in material culture. We have organized the course chronologically and thematically, spanning from the daguerreotypes of the 1840s to the digitized images of the present, with a focus on the materiality of photography throughout. We have a wonderful group of students from the masters and PhD programs who bring a variety of backgrounds and interests to the course, encompassing art history, conservation and sociology as well as fashion, dance and architecture. What we have found in our field studies with curators, conservators, dealers, and photographers is that the seminar’s approach to photography as material culture is not something that they have encountered before, and is as engaging to them as it is to us, which is very exciting.

My own scholarship in this area has focused on vernacular photography, considering its material qualities as well as its role in identity formation and social communication. I have been especially interested in analyzing photo albums as composite visual narratives, in which selection, arrangement, and sequence are crucial to understanding and interpreting this widespread form of cultural production, analogous to my conceptualization of collections of material narratives. In either case, their creation entails artifactual self-articulation, whether for oneself or a larger audience, often complemented by textual explanation, whether oral or written, lest their intended meanings be lost.

EPS: You’ve also been working for a while now on a Digital Archive Project related to your work, and your students’ work on documenting American Craft, Design and Folk Art. Tell us a little about this Archive.

CW:Yes, it’s the Bard Graduate Center Craft and Design Oral History Project, an online archive of oral history interviews of contemporary craftspeople and designers. The goal of the project is to document, preserve, and make available the voices of contemporary makers for the purpose of research. It responds to the growing interest in the fields of craft and design history, in which oral histories have become a key resource for important scholarship. The primary form of the interviews are transcripts, accompanied by photographs of interviewees and their work. The interviewees come from many fields: studio craft in wood, ceramics, fiber, jewelry, and metalwork; architectural, industrial, graphic, fashion, and costume design; and sculpture and installation art. They range from renown figures in their respective fields to mid-career professionals to emerging makers, providing a basis for in-depth and comparative research. The topics addressed in the interviews include family background, education, career choices, social networks, patronage, and the marketplace.

The interviews have been conducted by masters and Ph.D. students in the seminar I regularly teach on postwar US craft and design. They have done outstanding work on this project. An important component of this project is to help graduate students develop professional and ethical oral history research skills. Another is to share pedagogical strategies for teaching the subject of contemporary craft and design.

EPS: Your own background includes a degree from Winterthur, and then a PhD from Yale in American Studies, so you blend both work in the decorative arts with work in history. How does that fit in with what goes on here at the BGC?

CW:I see myself as a cultural historian of the US specializing in material culture studies. My graduate education at Winterthur and Yale provided me with an important foundation for pursuing this kind of scholarship. Both programs are multidisciplinary, encompassing the study of history, art history, and English literature. In order to engage in meaningful dialogue with those in such well-established disciplines, one must make one’s own scholarship intelligible to them. Thus, one becomes adept at explicitly conveying what material culture studies entails. In my own work, that means using objects as a primary source of evidence for analyzing and interpreting culture, past and present. That experience of articulating one’s own approach to scholarship has proved invaluable at the BGC, where the faculty and students come from different disciplinary backgrounds. At the same time, I have found the BGC to be a wonderfully supportive environment for pursuing object-based study from many vantage points. My colleagues’ expertise in wide range of fields is not only intellectually engaging, but also has broadened my perspective as an Americanist. For students, I believe it is crucial to be able to recognize the disciplinary orientations of the scholarship that they encounter, and to be able to explain what it means to study decorative arts, design history and material culture.

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the material culture of The Terror...

posted on 06 Dec 2012 21:10 by Elena Pinto Simon


During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone 'picked me out'.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) - 'Could one ever describe
this?' And I answered - 'I can.' It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.
— Anna Akhmatova, Requiem

These powerful words by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova,come very near the beginning of her seminal poem cycle on the Soviet Terror, Requiem. Written between 1935 and 1940, Akhmatova introduces the poems to her readers by telling the story above, citing it instead of a preface to the series of poems that flow one from another, capturing the terror years as well as any documentary.


The poems came from the over three hundred hours Akhmatova spent waiting on line outside the infamous Leningrad prison that took her second husband and her son for many years during the Stalinist purges. Her first husband was also killed by the repressive regime.

Women waited outside the prison, day after day in the cold and snow, hoping to be picked by the guards to visit their loved ones inside the prison. The poem brims with the agony of those on the outside, feeling hopeless, anxious for loved ones who might never be released. Another woman on the long, mostly silent line, asks her if anyone could ever describe the agony of what that moment represented. And Akhmatova, answers, “I can”.

This is the power of poetry —.the ability to transform even the most horrific into something haunting and indelible. As indelible as a photograph.

Requiem becomes a reverie of the smallest detail — the sounds of the prison wagon, coming to get the men in the dead of night, the clanging noise of the old keys in the prison yard’s door, the ever-present sound of soldier’s boots, crossing the yard.

Akhmatova says, later in the poem, that she has work to do today: she has to kill memory, and then learn to live again… She says it calmly and the irony of this impossibility is not lost on her readers.

It is such poetry that reminds us not just of the resilience of the human spirit, no matter how battered, but also how the keen eye of description can also be a powerful tool. No need for embellishments – these words are worth a thousand pictures.

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in conversation with Prof. Deborah Krohn...

posted on 03 Dec 2012 22:12 by Elena Pinto Simon

EPS: Hello, Professor Krohn, and welcome to LEARNING FROM THINGS. You are currently working in a field that is growing in scholarly interest: food and culinary history. Can you tell us about your work in this field?

DK: At first, I turned to early modern cookbooks and recipe collections to learn about vessels used for preparing and serving food, thinking that I could build richer contexts for these objects through what I considered to be primary documents. But in order to hear the voices of the cooks or stewards who wrote them, and to imagine the audiences for these texts, I realized that lots more information was needed. This research took me in two directions: I’ve been working in the area of the cultural history of food, and the history of the book and of reading. Recipes are repositories of knowledge about nature: animal, vegetable, and mineral. But to decode them, one also needs to explore the medium of the book and the book as an object. I’ve looked at everything from herbals to agricultural treatises, and am continuing to explore these areas in both teaching and research. The preparation of food was itself a craft – it still is – that was subject to the same economic and social constraints as the creation of works of art.

EPS: It is always interesting to hear about very current research. Would you talk about the book you are currently researching?

DK:The working title of the book is Bartolomeo Scappi’s Paper Kitchen: Food and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Scappi was a papal chef in 16th century Rome and the author of the first illustrated cookbook. I became fascinated with the illustrations, which featured ideal kitchens, pots, pans and other tools, and a unique representation of food service for a papal conclave. Whose idea was it to include images like this? Who was the intended audience? Who created the images, and where were they made? In order to answer these questions, I’ve been learning about the history of the book and print culture as well as cardinals and collectors in Renaissance Rome. I’ve been trying to find as many copies of the book, which went through 7 editions over 75 years, with visible traces of readers in the form of marks or marginalia. This has taken me to many American and European libraries to see copy after copy. As I suspected, this cookbook was used almost like a reference book, with sections including recipes, menus, and guides for choosing the best meats or vegetables. Scappi’s patrons were renowned collectors of antiquities, so I am also exploring this angle.

EPS: You have headed our curriculum in the area of museum history and theory in recent years. How do you see the history of collecting, and the history of museums and exhibitions as part of the main mission of the BGC?


DK: Museums and collections are the frames within which we experience a majority of the objects that we study at BGC. It is impossible to separate objects – they way they are classified and categorized – from their histories both of facture and of reception. But museums and collections are not neutral vessels. They are the products of social, economic, and political forces, and understanding this interface is essential. The exhibition is a medium through which ideas and objects are filtered. We need to understand how exhibitions function, how they present and organize information, and how they are generated. On a more practical level, many of our students will go on to work in museums or galleries, so a grounding in the historical and theoretical underpinnings of the institution of the museum is essential for becoming a thoughtful museum professional.

EPS: Could you tell us a little about your own background, and how you came to cultural history/ and material culture studies?

DK: As an undergrad at Princeton, I was very torn between the department of History and Art History. To keep my options open, I participated in an interdisciplinary program called European Cultural Studies. I was fortunate to have the chance to spend the year after graduation as a Fulbright fellow in Florence, during which I decided to return to Princeton to enter a PhD program in art history the following year. Once again, I chose to join an interdisciplinary program in Italian Studies, through which I did course work in history and languages as well as in art history. Researching my doctoral dissertation in a small archive in Tuscany, I kept being distracted by mentions in the documents about food, building materials, picture frames, clothing, and other material objects as they circulated in and out of the lives of the people whose records I was mining. Returning to New York City after completing my PhD at Harvard University, I worked for several years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Being surrounded by objects and having more or less free rein to develop gallery tours and other teaching instruments, I was able to pursue my interests in the area of decorative arts and material culture studies. Since coming to the BGC in 2002, I have had the opportunity to pursue these interests further through the teaching of material culture and cultural history. My years in the Museum have given me a perspective on the world of things that I greatly value and that I try to bring into all of my teaching and advising at BGC.

EPS: As one of our early modern/renaissance specialists, you are working in an area that has seen a growth of interest at the BGC. What more might you like to see us do in this area?

DK: Over the next few years, I hope to develop a course that addresses what we might call Renaissance Design History, looking at the careers of artists and architects such as Leonardo da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Leon Battista Alberti, among others. I look forward to co-teaching early modern courses with my colleagues Andrew Morrall and Jeffrey Collins.

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Focus, everyone....

posted on 03 Dec 2012 22:00 by Elena Pinto Simon

Some four years ago, Dean Peter Miller envisioned the Focus Gallery as an experimental space, where faculty, working with students, could ask the same kinds of questions in an exhibition format that might come up in a research seminar. And in the short time since then, each faculty member who has headed a Focus Gallery Project has worked with a class over the course of a semester or two to tease out questions, compile check lists, do the research, help create and organize the digital material, and work on many aspects of the final display – including the catalogue that accompanies each exhibition.


In a very short period of time, the Focus Gallery Experiment has become an important part of the BGC student experience for those who want to have hands-on experience with every aspect of working on an exhibition.

Exhibitions to date have included:
Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth – Century Northwest Coast. Faculty curator, Aaron Glass
American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960. Faculty curator, Ken Ames
Staging Fashion, 1880-1820. Faculty curator, Michele Majer
The Islands of Benoit Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Materiality of Thinking. Faculty curator, Nina Samuel
Next up, opening in April, 2013, will be Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935. Faculty curator, Erin Hasinoff


Students work closely with a faculty member on each project – but also engage regularly with our very strong exhibition staff on all aspects of planning and mounting an exhibition – from the process of arranging for object loans – to design, display, publication and interpretation.

It’s become a wonderful practicum for students who want careers in museums –as curators, researchers, and museum educators

The topics for these exhibitions reflect the wide range of student/faculty interests at the BGC.
The BGC Focus Gallery is headed by Prof. Ivan Gaskell, who came to the BGC from Harvard last January.

In addition to the work done in the classroom and in the library, each focus gallery project also Involves a Focus Gallery Team consisting of the students, the curator, the Head of the FG, the Gallery’s Assistant Curator, Ann Tartsinis, and an array of BGC staff depending on what the topic for each session might include. Sometimes the Exhibition Designer and Chief Preparer, Ian Sullivan is at the table; sometimes BGC’s Art Director, Laura Grey; and sometimes Asst. Director of the Digital Media Lab Kimon Karamidas, or the BGC’s Technical Digital Designer, Han Vu, are also present – along with this Blogger – as every aspect of a particular project is reviewed. The Chief Curator and Executive Editor of Gallery Publications is Nina Stritzler-Levine.

Each exhibition has posed different questions and problems and all have been an extraordinary experience for those involved – and provide a front row seat for students who are fully engaged in each project.


For more on the work of the Focus Gallery, please also read my interview with Prof. Gaskell earlier this term.
And when you are in New York – come take a peek at this little gem on the 4th floor of 18 West 86th Street.

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