Welcome to Learning from Things

words, words, words

posted on 30 Aug 2012 12:47 by Elena Pinto Simon

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine…”
Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, Scene 1
William Shakespeare

These words are almost overwhelming every time I read them or hear them performed. It is a stunning text, from a magical play — a picture drawn from words: rich, visual, evocative, cinematic, and almost intoxicating. Shakespeare is showing off, painting with words, and some four hundred years after they were written, they still make me want to go in search of that secret place.


It was a big summer in London. It’s not that our cousins across the pond have a so much better story to tell. It’s that they are such masters at telling – and re-telling, their stories. They use their histories so much better than we do. Included in the summer‘s bounty for London was THE Bard – ending with the spectacular exhibition on Staging Shakespeare now up at the British Museum (and more about this in another post). I’m going through the exhibition catalogue now; it’s dazzling.

The summer started early, however, when the BBC radio ran, over four weeks in the late spring, around Shakespeare’s birthday, Neil MacGregor’s newest object-study lesson: Shakespeare’s Restless World. In this mini-series, tiny in comparison to his now canonical History of the World in 100 Objects, MacGregor takes one object a day from the Museum’s trove of holdings of things from Shakespeare’s time. And using the method he has now honed into an art form in itself, he spends 14 minutes on each,talking about what it would have meant in that time and place. What kind of objects? Well, it includes, a fork, found in the excavation of the Rose Theatre, an apprentice’s cap, a communion chalice from Stratford, a public notice to close the theatres because of an outbreak of plague, a ‘magical’ mirror. Only a portion of the 20 objects would have had enormous value in Shakespeare’s day. Many were ephemera, and it was a miracle they survived at all.

But what a picture MacGregor paints with them all!

You can listen to the podcasts here:

But fair warning: this series is highly addictive, and you are likely to be hooked after one podcast. And like Oberon’s intoxicating lines, you may find yourself wanting to spend some time in the late 16th century, hunting for the secret place.

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Tags: britishmuseum history london macgregor shakespeare stratford

overtonal montage and the world around us

posted on 29 Aug 2012 14:07 by Elena Pinto Simon

Sergei Eisenstein, that giant of classical Soviet Cinema, wrote and taught extensively on the concept of overtonal montage in cinema. He wrote before computers, the web, and multiple forms of information rushing in all at once were the norm.

I often wonder what he would have made of 21st century life: the cacophony of the world we all live and walk through every day — sounds and images, multiple voices, multiple tracks — all enriching, intensifying and sometimes assaulting our senses and our experience of the world. We are often distracted by this barrage.

Eisenstein certainly did not associate his notion of overtonal montage with distraction; just the opposite. He wanted the multiple layers to help us see and hear more, not less. More focus, More clarity. His dense images/frames were to help us see those things that normally fall between the cracks into the huge valley of unseeing.

I like to think about overtonal montage as way into the layering that is so crucial in approaching things from a material culture perspective. The more questions we ask, the more layers of meaning we reveal, the richer our understanding becomes. Sometimes this hits me in amazing ways on Wednesday nights at our seminar series. I often arrive for a lecture, maybe even on a topic I have never thought about, and find before the conversation has ended, new doors have opened. Sometimes it’s a new methodology; sometimes a new take on some old idea. These Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the BGC provide so much nourishment!

Eisenstein would have felt right at home.


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Tags: cinema eisenstein montage overtonal seminars

questions for Dean Miller

posted on 28 Aug 2012 16:57 by Elena Pinto Simon

The Dean of the BGC, Peter N. Miller, has been on academic sabbatical for a year. He’s back now, and I had a chance to ask him a few questions about the academic year ahead…

EPS: Dean Miller, welcome back from your leave! Tell us some of what you worked on this past year?
PNM:I had two book projects to work on; one was a rough manuscript that had grown over the years out of a class I’ve been teaching at the BGC on the history of the study of objects as evidence from the Renaissance to the Present. The core of it, a series of seminars linking work done by Renaissance antiquaries around 1600 through some now obscure but then super-important German historians c. 1900, I turned slowly, each time I taught the course, into something more refined. I spent a few months making it into a book. I think it’s close, but not quite there yet. I’ll use it as a text in the course I’m teaching in Spring 2013 and hopefully that will finally “put me over the top.”
The other book project brings to a close my 20 year relationship with Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc, the French antiquarian whose work has inspired much of what I’ve done as a scholar and , even, as an administrator these last years. Using his vast surviving archive I’ve tried to model what a historical scholarship would look like that tried to write cultural history from documents of material history.

EPS: Are you excited to be back? What are you looking forward to in the upcoming academic year?
PNM: Very much so. I really like working with the team that has been assembled here over the years. I feel like we have gotten to the starting line—we’ve got the players, we’ve practiced together, we have the strategy in place, and we know what works and what doesn’t. The next step will be the fun one: mobilizing all this in a smart, efficient way.
What—in addition to all the usual great things like seminars and symposia—am I excited about? I’m really pleased about the two, two-year post-doctoral fellowships that start this year. There’s no other place in the country with a dedicated post-doc for Islamic material culture. We have a great first Fellow and I am confident that this will be a great project for us. And our third BGC/AMNH Fellow brings us—finally!—an expert in the South American continent and pre-modern textiles. In the bargain we also get a course on archaeology and material culture which I have felt as a gap in our program for some time now.
And then of course there’s year 1 of the Mellon grant….

EPS: Can you give us some hints about plans for the Mellon grant?
PNM: Well, this year is really just a preliminary. Ivan Gaskell will roll out the first iteration of his new purpose-built course on conservation and its philosophy, and there will be a first-time presence of conservation in the Survey. But the main event will be a planning conference later in the year with professors and conservators from around the world. They will help us not only “plan” for the remaining years of the grant but sharpen our thinking about the rest of our program, which in upcoming years will include public seminars, post-doctoral fellowships, visiting professors and Focus projects. That’s a lot to think about!


EPS: The faculty had a great conversation during Orientation about the BGC as a “home” for post-disciplinarity. Does that have any resonance for you?
PNM: Oooh. Well, it’s something complicated. The interesting questions are and have always been at the margins of the controllable. If you stop to think about it, that of course makes sense. It means, fundamentally, that educational institutions must give a kind of training which in turn must be, in some strict Hegelian sense, “negated” so as to reach to new domains not yet understood. Otherwise it is always about filling in the blank bits on an already demarcated canvas. Important work, for sure, but which Kuhn quite rightly described as “normal science”, not the paradigm-busting work that creates the new.

EPS: Why do you think the Focus Gallery has become such an exciting opportunity for our students in such a short period of time?
PNM: I think there’s nothing quite as exciting as seeing ideas in action. The Focus Project takes the entire gamut of an exhibition, from the initial question to the last wall panel and makes it visible, and makes it something one can stand outside of and ask “why?” It’s also really interesting to see a team in action, and for this project we assemble such a range of local assets as to make it a real, visible team project. Finally, since so many of our students are interested in the history and theory of museums as both an intellectual and vocational venture, the Focus Project offers a really invaluable education.

EPS: How do you think someone best prepares for applying to the Bard Graduate Center?
PNM: Preparation is a tough word. Our job is to do the preparation. Your—the student’s—job is to want to know more about how we learn about any of many pasts from objects. And of course, as a teacher of mine once told me in high school, “a good question is more than half an answer.”

EPS: You’ve often said that the BGC is object centered and question-driven. Why do you think that is important?
PNM: Because learning is about learning something you don’t know, or didn’t understand, You can only do this if you ask a question. There’s a good reason why the rabbis two thousand years ago, in enumerating different types of learners, put in last place the one who did not even know to ask. Without that, there’s no hope of moving forward. But it’s also the case that following the question, rather than the contours of the known, or the accepted, or just the familiar, can define for us what really was the case, before the professionalization of learning intervened with its own categories. Questions, then, allow us to slip past those whom Aby Warburg, one of our heroes, once described as the “border guards” who zealously policed the legitimate confines of disciplines. As a place whose work spills over these, and in fact which only exists at the crossroads where disciplines like art history, archaeology, anthropology and history, meet and mingle, it’s only good questions that can help us move freely.

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Tags: amnh antiquaries conservation de documents focusgallery history islamic peiresc post-disciplinarity pre-modern questions scholarship symposia textiles warburg

a coat, a song, and a process...

posted on 28 Aug 2012 12:11 by Elena Pinto Simon

A Coat
William Butler Yeats


I MADE my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they'd wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked.

Yeats’ words remind us that even the best intentioned works, when they fall into the wrong hands, can make us feel useless. For me, thinking about this poem has always helped me realize that focusing on process is more useful than worrying about reception.

Process is an important way to inform practice. We like to think at the BGC that we build in this attention to process in a lot of the work that goes on here. Take the installation workshop for students that we have set up for Sept.12 so that current students can be part of the process as the good folks in the gallery install Circus. Or our Materials Days that give students a chance to engage directly with the various materials they study, or our WIPS (Works-in-progress seminars) where faculty come to think out loud about the questions they are working on…they are all ways to look and think about process of making things…and to then connect that to larger questions of history and culture.

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Tags: days materials poetry process wips workshops yeats

workshops, workshops, workshops...

posted on 27 Aug 2012 14:58 by Elena Pinto Simon

Week two of BGC Orientation moves from the introductory to the practical. Along with language classes in French, German and Italian, this week we are running a number of HOW TO workshops for all new students: How to use a wiki, how to use digital resources in the library, a session on BGC Writing Style with our writing tutor, a basic digital tools clinic, IT orientation. The nuts and bolts of the toolkit all BGC students need to know just ahead of the start of classes.
New students are also lining up their on-campus student jobs, settled in to Bard Hall, and learning about their new neighborhood, and for many, their new city. Meanwhile, down the block at 18 W, the big install for the main gallery exhibit, Circus and the City is underway. The circus is coming to town!


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Tags: circus it library orientation wiki

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