a talk with Prof. Aaron Glass....

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