Objects and Remembering

Another great reflection on the conference here, from Cath Feely


After an absence of six months, I have decided to use this blog as a kind of notebook again. From September, I am co-teaching a third year course on ‘Historians and Material Culture’. Having learned that the best way to think through things is to try to teach them, I am really looking forward to this experience, not least because my colleague comes to material culture with a background in archaeology, medieval studies and eighteenth-century history (isn’t that great?!), and I come to it with the sensibilities of a modern cultural historian. We will also be genuinely co-teaching – with two of us in the same room – rather than doing tag-team lectures. This is really exciting because I think this will lead to a real conversation in the classroom, with us learning from each other as well as from the students.

With this in mind, I went to a…

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Objects and remembering

This is a great overview of the conference by Emma-Jayne Graham, who talked to us about votives – terracotta babies given to the Gods

The Votives Project

ImageLast Friday (20th June) I attended a conference on ‘Objects and Remembering’ at the University of Manchester. The event brought together people working on the relationship between objects and memory from a number of different perspectives – archaeology, history, museum and heritage studies, forensics and geology. It was a highly stimulating day, full of lively discussion and a realisation that many of us were headed in the same direction, even if we were taking very diverse routes in our attempts to get there. What was our shared goal? To better understand both the way in which objects are implicated in memory-making, and the consequences of memory for the meaning-making associated with objects.

Several themes emerged over the course of the day that I have continued to reflect upon, especially in terms of their relevance to the study of votive practice: authenticity (of objects, experience, and memory); the creation and…

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Love Objects: Emotion, Design and Material Culture

This is a guest post from Sorcha O’Brien, (Kingston University) and Anna Moran (National College of Art and Design, Dublin). They talk about their book Love Objects: Emotion, Design and Material Culture.

Bringing together a range of material from design history, material culture, design practice and anthropology, Love Objects: Emotion, Design and Material Culture looks beyond the obvious symbols of love, to investigate the different ways that we relate to objects and use them, not just as ‘signifiers’, but as actors to help negotiate our relationships with others.

Love Objects visuals 6

Several of the essays touch on family relationships mediated by objects, but two in particular look at the practice of using objects to perform cathartic acts of remembrance. Christina Edwards’ essay is a meditation on how she took a collection of family photographs and reworked them in the darkroom after her parents’ death; she meditates on loss and grief, as well as the act of creating something new. Catherine Harper’s essay takes her memory of her grandmother’s quilt as a starting point. Through her own textile practice she makes a surprising discovery about how ideas and craft practices are transmitted through generations of women. Both of these essays recognise that it is not the objective quality or sophistication of the object that is important in creating a vessel for memory and inspiration, but their ability to prompt new considerations and revaluations of the past.

Christina Edwards, 'Material Memories' exhibition, School of Art, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, February 2008

Christina Edwards, ‘Material Memories’ exhibition, School of Art, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, February 2008.

The re-evaluation of the past is central to Jane Hattrick’s essay on her work with the archive house of London fashion designer Norman Hartnell. Her working relationship with the personal possessions painstakingly accumulated over a lifetime makes them much more than just the raw material of historical research. Bruce Davenport’s work on ‘magical touching’ is relevant here, although Hattrick’s  approach to both her material and her own reactions to them situates the discussion of sexuality and archival practice within a current debate in design history revolving around the role of the personal.

In contrast to this, Louise Purbrick’s essay grapples with the difficulties surrounding the object as gift, including the practice of shopping for gifts. Using material from a 1990s Mass Observation directive on Giving and Receiving Gifts, she considers the reactions of respondents to the perennial problem of purchasing gifts for other people, and the struggle to select and purchase objects that can remain with the gifted as meaningful objects. The role of objects in carrying memory can become a burden, some gifts straining under the expectation that the object will be kept, loved and treasured.

This sense of embodied memory as a negative emotion also emerges from Adam Drazin’s essay on Romanian émigrés in Dublin, many of whom curtail their lifestyle to save for objects which they send home in preparation for a possibly mythical return, sometime in the future. It is particularly noticeable in his discussion of Carmen’s watch, which she hung beside the door of her spartan bedsit to act as a stark reminder of money spent unwisely in the past and a warning not to indulge in emotional connections.

Emma Whiting with Stain Sneakers, 2012.

Emma Whiting with Stain Sneakers, 2012. Courtesy of University of Brighton.

The capacity of objects to hold meaning is also addressed by Jonathan Chapman, whose work strongly emphasises the importance of designing emotionally durable objects. In his essay, he considers how people retain emotional connections with their possessions over time and how this can be incorporated into the design process. Chapman discusses Emma Whiting’s concept for Puma footwear, which celebrates the process of ageing and the ‘evolving narrative experience’ manifest in the objects’ patina. Looking to the future, Chapman argues for a sustainable alternative to ‘throw away’ culture, for a society in which people value the journey that an object has taken and the memories objects hold. Durability, Chapman argues, ‘is just as much about emotion, love, value and attachment, as it is fractured polymers, worn gaskets and blown circuitry’.

Museum of Water

We were a little slow to notice the arrival of a rather interesting pop-up beneath the courtyard of Somerset House, but between 6 – 29 June, the “itinerant collection” that comprises the Museum of Water has set up home there.

The collection, which contains over 300 bottles of water collected by contemporary artist and film-maker Amy Sharrocks, provides interesting food for thought in light of our discussions last Friday, on value, authenticity, and the display potential of something as intangible as memory – in whatever form its object vessel seems to take.
All of the objects in the Museum of Water have been donated by members of the public – and although the bottles themselves are interesting in their own right, it is their contents which have the most significance. Participants responded to the call “Choose what water is most precious to you. Find a bottle to put it in. Come and tell us why you chose it. We will keep it for you.”

Amongst the responses are waters from around the world, spit, wee, condensed breath and “water from a bedside table said to be infused with dreams.” They are suffused with memories and nostalgia – a newborn baby’s bath water, baptism water, a melted snowman – and yet as they discolour and evaporate, conservation issues mean the objects themselves will shortly become memory.

Lastly, there is the issue that the significance of the waters would be entirely inaccessible were it not for the written record that accompanies them. Indeed, even with the written record, some of the offerings are deliberately meaning-less to begin with – and yet in the context of a wider whole, do they have an inherent memorial value? A signifier of what plastic bottles/ jam jars were like in 2013?

“Tea that was given to me by a very friendly traffic warden on a very very very cold day. I will never forget”

“Tea that was given to me by a very friendly traffic warden on a very very very cold day. I will never forget”

If you want to become a fossil, aim for the tar pit

Our suspicions have been confirmed: the best place to die, if you want to become a good fossil, is the tar pit. Just one of the things we learnt from listening to the excellent papers at Objects and Remembering.

We’re pleased to say that the conference was a success, with excellent papers, discussions and exuberant, if short, tea breaks. Several questions were posed and answered in different ways – what kinds of memories are evoked by objects? why do we seek to make up stories about objects (like a bracelet or a doll)? does it matter if an object in a museum is not authentic, not what it appears to be but a reproduction? what shapes the stories we tell about particular objects (political, cultural, national contexts…professional identities, childhood experiences…a romantic disposition)? how can the ways in which people relate to objects inform understanding of memory, collective memory and other forms of remembering? – This blog will continue to act as a source of information and hopefully inspiration, and any guest posts responding to the themes of the conference are very welcome.

Rosy Rickett and Felicity Winkley

Last chance to book a place!

The conference is taking place this Friday, the 20th June 2014! We’re very excited to welcome everyone and have a productive and stimulating day of papers and discussions. If you would like to come but haven’t registered yet, please take a look at the registration tab on this site. Come to the training room C1.18, the graduate school, Ellen Wilkinson. We will put up signs so it should be reasonably easy to find. Tea/coffee/lunch and a wine reception are provided for everyone who has registered…we have three places left so hurry!