Material Culture Theme Week

This week over on Activehistory.ca we are sharing the Material Culture Theme week I had the joy of editing. This week brings together folks who work with material culture both inside and outside academia.

The week is filled with posts on textiles, learning with material culture, family connections to making, and cultural meaning attached to objects. Go check it out.

A huge thank you to all the contributors and folks who made this week come together. You are awesome.

Finding Memories in Textiles

Close up photo of fabric patches

Another textile post. I know, I know. But I am finding a lot of joy in thinking about the ways in textiles intersect with history.

I’m working on a project that has me re-purposing old fabrics. This has included working with everything from old shirts to off cuts from sewing projects to found fabric household fabric from the 1980s. As I handle, snip, and sew this fabric I’ve been thinking about the memories it holds both physically and metaphorically.

Fabric holds smells. Fabric can smell musty, it can smell like a home, it can smell like the person who wore it last. These smells are all memories of moments or individuals. I have an afghan blanket that my Grandma made me and after she passed away I struggled with the need to wash it. The blanket still smelt like her, I could wrap it around me and revisit her house and shared experiences. As I washed it the smell faded and so did that visceral memory trigger.

Fabric holds its shape. Long folded fabric gets creases and lines. Folded up linens stuck on a shelf at the back of the closet remember how they were folded and gain lines from long storage. Lines in old fabric can speak to use. Was the fabric folded over something for years? Has it discolored evenly? What can the shape of it tell us about how it has been cared for, used, and stored.

Fabric witnesses. Fabric falls victim to stains and spots and grows threadbare from overuse. That pair of jeans that I don’t want to give up, even though they have holes from bonfires past. Those jeans tells a story, even if I’m the only one who can hear it. That coffee stained quilt that you scrubbed but couldn’t quite clean. It tells a story too. Threadbare woven mats show where people walked, where furniture was placed, and those spots no one ever walked.

Touching, witnessing, and examining textiles connect us to personal, family, and societal histories. Textiles can remember how they are treated and used. They bare signs of their makers and owners. They can bring comfort, tears, and joy. What textile memories do you carry with you?

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Material Culture Theme Week

Poster for theme week

Active History is organizing a 2020 theme week around material culture. Modeled after the 2019 Museum Theme Week (http://activehistory.ca/museum-theme-week/) this series aims to expand the conversation about material culture and highlight the work of those studying the materiality of the past.

We welcome contributions from academics, public historians, museum professionals, makers, community practitioners, and anyone engaged in thinking about material culture and the past.

Blog posts are welcomed on a range of topics including (but not limited to):

  • How can object-centred approaches to studying the past change our understanding of history? 
  • What is material culture? How does material culture fit within academic or public history scholarship? 
  • Examples of community-led approaches to material culture research and collecting
  • Decolonizing approaches material culture
  • Case study examples of material culture analysis  

Active History posts are between 700 and 1500 words, avoid jargon, use hyperlinks over footnotes, and we encourage the use of images to illustrate posts. We also ask that the style of writing is accessible to a wide audience. Draft posts are due by February 24, 2020.

Questions and pitches can be directed to series editor Krista McCracken at krista.mccracken@gmail.com

Tri-University Annual History Conference Keynote

Title slide for talk

I am delighted to share that I was the keynote at the Tri-University Annual History Conference on March 9, 2019 in Guelph.  The theme for this year’s conference was “In Small and Large Things Remembered’: Material Culture and History.” Continue reading Tri-University Annual History Conference Keynote

Exploring History at the Royal Ontario Museum

ROM.  Photo Credit: It_Paris

I grew up in a rural community that is within commuting distance to Toronto.  Despite this proximity and my love for museums I never visited the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) while living there.  Last week while visiting family in the area I took the opportunity to explore the ROM for the first time. 

Overall my visit was a good but tiring day.  The ROM is huge and by the end of the day I found myself experiencing museum fatigue.  Some of the highlights of my visit were the Samuel European Galleries and the Gallery of Chinese Architecture.

European Gallery.  Credit: Tom Flemming

The Samuel European Galleries walk visitors through changes in decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century.  The majority of the displays in this gallery are setup as rooms or vignettes featuring furniture, instruments, textile and other material culture objects.  Many of these rooms were paired with audio elements which allow visitors to listen to period appropriate music while looking at the displays.  For example the Baroque room had an audio element that played classical music from the Baroque period. 

The European Gallery also included the Arms and Armour and the Around 1914: Design in a New Age displays. The Around 1914 exhibit included an interesting mix of material from designers such as Christopher Dresser, Frank Lloyd Wright, Max Laeuger, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.  It was an interesting capstone to the European Galleries focus on material culture and design.

Chinese Tomb. Credit: FHKE

The Gallery of Chinese Architecture contains numerous architectural artifacts including roof tiles, flooring tiles,
building features, and tomb related artifacts. The Architecture gallery space is relatively small and in comparison to the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Gallery of China which focuses on the broader history and culture of China.  However, the large buildings and tombs in the Architecture section were eye catching and a nice variation to the more frequent displays of pottery, tools, and statues.

In addition to the European Gallery and the Chinese Architecture Gallery I enjoyed the hands on elements integrated into the Gallery of Biodiversity and the Earth’s Treasures exhibit that focused on the history of mining, precious minerals, and gems.  I had no idea either of these galleries existed and was presently surprised by their quality and uniqueness. 

Family Heirlooms: From Cutlery to Adornments

Who else has a relative who collects spoons?  In many instances these relatives tend to be older, female, and the spoons tend to be hanging in a wooden/glass display case of some sort.  My mother, grandmother and a number of aunts all collected spoons at one point or another. 

Theses spoons were often purchased while away on vacation or as a gift when someone else went away.  The spoons come in all shapes and sizes, but most tend to be silver and have a delicate look about them.  They are clearly decorative and not your everyday soup spoon.

Often a spoon collector has a personal story or memory associated with each spoon.  These stories are rarely recorded and often not remembered by anyone other than the collector.  Following a death, many children have given away spoon collections that once represented pieces of family history and material culture. 

I think the lack of appeal of spoon collections to younger generations is one of the reasons why I was so interested by the idea of spoon jewelery.  This Christmas my Mother gave my sister and I spoon bracelets.  These bracelets weren’t made from her spoon collection, but I’d like to think that they were made out of special occasion cutlery that once held a place in a family’s life.

Evening Star Spoon

Each bracelet was accompanied by a card which detailed the make of the original cutlery and a short history of spoon jewellery.  My bracelet was made from a 1950s Evening Star, Oneida Silverplate spoon (pictured at right).  The Evening Star spoon is definitely not as decorative as many of those in typical spoon collections, but it does look as though it belongs to a ‘nice’ antique silverware set, that was maybe only used on special occasions.  

So why make jewelery out of spoons? Spoon jewelry isn’t a new fashion trend, but apparently dates back to the 17th century.  Early spoon jewelry is said to have been predominately rings and was made by servants who had stolen flatware from their masters. Another history claims sailors in the navy would sneak silverware away from a ship galley to make engagement rings for their girlfriends. 

Personally, I like the idea of reusing objects that once held significance to make an item that is cherished by someone else.   Jewelry made out of antique objects that are no longer valued by a family seems like a great way to provide a second life to a family heirloom.  It makes me wonder about how other family collections could be re-purposed—eg. that overwhelming set of teacups your aunt has been storing for years.

Heritage reading

December 20th’s #reverb10 prompt:

Beyond avoidance. What should you have done this year but didn’t because you were too scared, worried, unsure, busy or otherwise deterred from doing? (Bonus: Will you do it?)

In 2010 I have avoided dedicating more time to reading academic writing relevant to my field. The majority of the material I have read outside of work in 2010 was fiction. Granted, a large percentage of the fiction has been historical fiction but that really doesn’t measure up to academic reading. One deterrent to academic reading has been my lack of direction in what to read. Picking specific topics I would like to know more about would help give my reading purpose and structure.

Topics I would like to explore through reading in 2011 include:
-Material culture
-Built heritage
-Collective memory
-The interaction of First Nation heritage and public history