meet one of our Americanists...

posted on 24 Sep 2012 19:21 by Elena Pinto Simon
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EPS: Hello, Prof. Ames. Welcome back from your leave. Can you tell us a little about what you worked on while you were away?
KA: Of course. But not all of my time was directed toward research. The exhibition phase of the Christmas card project kept me busy into September. That was succeeded by the circus extravaganza, which needed attention on and off throughout the year. I went to Rome in the fall and Paris in the spring, in part to refresh my memory of those places, in part to study them as tourist destinations and accumulations of extraordinary material culture, and in part to understand them as urban societies both like and very unlike New York. In the spring I wrote a short chapter for a book about iconic objects, then started generating an index of hotels in Manhattan.

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EPS: Circus and the City just opened in our Gallery, and we’ll all excited about that. You were one of the curators for the exhibition, and also did a lot of work on one of the two catalogues. Tell us why you think the American circus is a good subject for the BGC microscope.
KA: Ah, yes, the circus. Not traditional fare for the BGC and useful for that reason, I think. The circus project took us outside our comfort zone and was never easy. But the positive results were at least three-fold. First, the project demonstrated that the BGC is an innovative institution, willing to take on under-studied topics of obvious historical significance and give them the serious treatment they deserve. Second, the circus venture brought us into contact with scholars who previously knew little, if anything, about the BGC. We gained some new friends and advocates. Third, we were fortunate enough to hire Matt Wittmann, fresh out of the University of Michigan with a dissertation on the American circus abroad under his belt, to play a major role in all three parts of the project. In the end, the BGC gained two fine publications and an engaging exhibition and Matt an impressive and enviable vita that should serve him well. I hope that we can craft similar double-win situations in the future.

EPS: You are one of the pioneers in the field of American material culture studies. What drew you to the field?
KA: Simply put, a fascination with the material world. I am attracted to things – as materials, as designs, as generators of sensory experience and aesthetic response, as evidence of inner workings of the mind, as historical evidence, as manifestations of what matters and has mattered, and for all the countless other reasons one might enumerate. Beyond that, the field of material culture is effectively infinite. I will never run out of material to study. And finally, because everything really is connected to everything else or nearly so, there are few limits on the directions scholarly inquiries might take. All that said, however, my decision to study material culture was not wholly rational, any more than someone else’s to become a musician, an actor, or an antiques dealer. I think we are born with certain orientations already implanted. If you are lucky, you fall into something you are biologically wired to enjoy and, perhaps, are tolerably good at. I have been lucky.

EPS: Can you tell us what your newest interests are, and what you will be working on next?
KA: Yes, happy to talk about that. Research, at least for me, falls into two categories: direct and indirect or, perhaps, directed and undirected. The first refers to project-specific study, the second to more generalized gathering of information and sensation. One follows the needs of a specific project; the other can be more free-form and serendipitous. During my leave, I took both courses and, in this instance, they coincided. The topic that emerged is hotels; it turns out that I have been studying them for years without fully recognizing it. Hotels, however, is a very large topic and needs narrowing. My inclination is to confine myself to Manhattan but even that terrain is immense. At this point I am now purposefully gathering data but the exact focus of the study still is not clear. Nor, at this stage, does it have to be. It is obvious, however, that studying the hotels of Manhattan over time means examining local manifestations of a transnational phenomenon. We will see where that leads.

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