Museum object biography
How did that alter the future life of the axe? The effects of display on the object are immediate and significant. He believed the pieces were used to provide provisions for the afterlife.
My focus on what biographies of objects bring to biography will be on objectification Miller,the metaphorical materiality of text and image Tilley,and recontextualization Thomas,and the artefact as museum object biography Strathern, The consideration of biographical objects challenges dominant, Western and Enlightenment narratives that create a dualism between subjects and objects, whereby the object is always seen as mute in relation to the subject as absolute agent of action.
As Heidegger discusses in his essay Age of the World Picture, the Enlightenment man of reason made a picture of the world, and separated it off from himself in order to understand and exploit it.
The current aim of material culture studies, as multi-displinary and within the anthropology department at University College London which include amongst others; Tilley,; Miller,; Pinney, ; Kuchler,and from which I museum object my lead, is to develop Hegelian, Marxist, and Bourdieurian materialist theories through ethnographic research in order to de-fetishize objects and to find a more worthy model of biography with the world.
Anthropology is the study of social relationships and material culture is the study of objects. This rationalization can also be extended to allow a certain rationalization of the being of objects and an argument for the ontology of things Gell, The way individuals and groups objectify their identities allows an understanding of culturally specific social practices. This approach aims to go beyond physiognomic analysis to question the artifice of Enlightenment categorizations of the cultural and natural world which subjects and objects inhabit. One of the most fundamental theories to the study of material culture, and by extension biographical objects, is that of objectification.
Objectification considers the construction and translation of social relations, culture and value systems through artefacts, and has three primary concerns. First of all the concept of knowledge and identity is possible through objects.
Secondly, knowledge is carried by relations among relations of things — i. Thirdly, there are methodological consequences of objectification as a theory.
In perpetual fusion and separation, the subject and object leave an imprint on one another, enabling a secondary objectivity. Subjectivity is objectified and vice versa, and it is this which makes possible the application of the notion of biography to things.
Subsequent anthropological and material culture theories and methodologies have taken into account this dialectical approach to objects and subjects in order to recover the significance of things as making possible human social relations. Phenomenology involves the attempt to describe the objects of consciousness in the manner in which they are presented to consciousness. It attempts to reveal the world as it is actually experienced directly by a subject as opposed to how we might theoretically assume it to be. A further ethnographically based approach is to problematize the dualism between gift as inalienable and non-Western and museum object biography as alienable and Western as discussed by Mauss  in relation to gift giving, and Marx  in relation to commodity in systems of exchange Miller, In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask questions similar to those one asks about people: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its 'status' and in the museum object biography and culture, and how are these possibilities realized?
Where does the thing come from and who made it? What had been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? What are the recognized 'ages' or periods in the thing's 'life', and what are the cultural markers for them?
How does the thing's use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its museum object biography To be thought of as having a social life, objects first have to be distinguished as artefacts of interest by their human subject biographers. The consequence of this is that many objects are simply ignored and not considered as having an agency that impacts upon, or is bound up in that of their human counterparts.
In this case the object which is distinguished is subservient to and merely illustrative of the person.
The person-hood Bourdieu acknowledges in objects, through a sociological methodology, has been widely critiqued as homogenizing and universalizing. This physiognomic approach to objects is limiting and fails to take into account the specific cultural temporal and spatial contexts which a concept of objects with biographies offers.
What do objects do? A material and visual culture perspective.
Kopytoff and Appadurai approach in The Social Life of Things to mapping human identities through the biographies of things has had a huge impact on material culture studies. An example of this could be the museum from use to object biography value that African artefacts undergo once circulating in the global art market. It can be argued that the rehabilitation of material culture in anthropology and other disciplines, and the focus on things with biographies is an attempt to re-instate the sovereignty of the subject. I intend to come back to the ramifications of a theoretical and methodological focus on biography and the cultural contexts of things which make the object subservient to the subject in the conclusion.
From the standpoint of culture, the values of life are civilized nature…they appear as developments of a basis that we call nature and whose power and intellectual content they surpass in so far as they become culture…the material products of culture…in which natural material is developed into forms which could never have been realized by their own energies, are products of our own desires and emotions, the result of ideas that utilize the available possibilities of objects…by cultivating objects, that is by increasing their museum object biography beyond the performance of their natural constitution, we cultivate ourselves… Simmel, My understanding of biography in terms of things is that it functions as a metaphor to highlight the analogies between human and non-human life-cycles.
The object, in comparison is traditionally thought of in terms of a visual, less mediated and natural system of communication.
ENGLAND: THE OTHER WITHIN
Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology The museum object biography of the notion of biography, as temporal and spatialto objects is an inherently metaphorical and ontological methodology. However, it is worthwhile noting that Gell museums object biography the agent-hood of humans over and above that of objects. Gell as a biographer of efficacious objects advances the proposition that it is possible to make the social lives of objects analogous to the human biographies.
What Strathern and Gell suggest is that objects simultaneously allow a past and a future in a present, whatever that may be and in light of cultural and contextual differences. If completed, and appropriate, these biographies will be added to the research website, a publication to count towards your CV!
The Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford is one of the foremost ethnographic museums object biography in the world. It is known for having many thousands of objects on display from all corners of the globe. However, it does have surprisingly large collections of artefacts, photographs and manuscripts from England.
A research project is now underway to be completed during looking at the museum's English collection and hoping to discover many things about it. The three-year project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The team is analysing the collections of the museum, together with the history and motives of the people making the collections.
It is hoped this will throw new light on what was being collected and on a variety of issues including the concept of 'survivals' within English culture.
The overall aim of the project is to use a major museum collection, with its connected documentation, to throw light on the modern construction of Englishness. The changing structure of the English ethnographic and archaeological collections are being analysed, focussing, at the moment, particularly on Oxfordshire and Somerset.
This post, the first post for this blog, will focus on object agency and object biography. Consider the following story.
A small metal badge is found in a field one sunny day. Whatever the circumstances, something that was hidden is now museum object biography for us to see. A river runs by the boundary of the field, in a corner of England that has been farmland forever and ever. There are thousands of them, they were mass-produced tourist-trap trinkets sold to pilgrims as a souvenir of their trip to a holy site. We could start talking about pilgrimage.
The power of relics is what object agency is all about. Visiting the holy site and making contact with a museum object biography relic was believed to transfer a blessing or religious protection to the pilgrim, and so a pilgrim souvenir such as a badge or an ampulla would not only serve as a reminder of the pilgrimage, but would allow pilgrims to take back some of that religious power.
Divine intervention for preventing or curing illness, particularly after plague events, made up a significant aspect of medieval attitudes towards sickness and health, which reinforces the inextricable biography of medieval religion in daily life. The corrosion of archaeological iron objects after excavation can be very rapid indeed and is caused by the presence of chloride ions that accelerate corrosion and within a very short time can lead to the complete destruction of objects.
Dry storage conditions can halt this process and a number of chloride extraction techniques are being developed to try and ameliorate this process. While I am by no means suggesting that curators should let objects like the Kirkburn Sword rust away, what I do find interesting is the apparent contradiction between the necessity to stop physical change to the object against the changing knowledge of the objects in collections, which is especially apparent in university museums.
It also seems contradictory that there are well established archaeological techniques of analysis such as examination of use-wear that are reliant on museum object biography or changes that occur to objects as they age such as museum object and repair, yet as soon as an object enters the museum a new set of values are applied and as far as is possible aging of the objects is halted.
In reaction to the mind vs. Objects were made to be used and handled.Changing Lives: Object Biography and Law
This viewpoint has to some extent been recognised by museums through object handling sessions and object handling desks. But returning to an issue already raised, the objects selected for handling are often unregistered or their archaeological context was not recorded.
Objects made from robust objects biography are also preferentially selected for object handling and we can see again a hierarchy of objects according to curatorial and conservation values: Returning to thoughts concerning an ethics of material museum, in the course of their normal life objects are physically changed through usage and damage and these signs of age feed back into how the object is perceived.
Ageing and damage is therefore a key aspect of the life of an object and halting or stopping this process could be viewed as running counter to the natural course of events. I now want to turn to my fourth area of discussion, the importance of the accession of museum objects. I think the process and moment of accession cannot be overemphasised in its importance. This is a performance every bit as significant in the life of an object as the role of a cauldron at a feast or a sword in a battle.
The object enters the museum by being donated, acquired or by some other means. The displacement of museum objects from their original locations is something that tends to be obscured through the method of the museum, especially when it comes to old finds. This is because other information such as who collected it is often given equal prominence to the original context of the object. Once it has been accepted by the museum it awaits registration typically by a curator. It is assigned a number and is entered into the museum register. In the past this was a physical register. Today most museums have some kind of digital recording system.
Once the object has been registered it is typically assigned a location for permanent storage and is marked with its accession number for identification purposes.
As an accessioned artefact decisions made about it now ultimately lie with the museum trustees or museum board, but in practice everyday museums object biography are made by curators, conservators and collections assistants. Depending on object biography policy gloves must be worn to handle the artefact and to study or examine it requires object biography permission. In terms of ownership the majority of museum objects are not owned by individuals, they are held in trust for the benefit of the public.
In essence therefore unlike the original purpose of many objects, museum objects are supposed to be viewed and admired not owned. A market for many museum artefacts often exists but once an object is accessioned it becomes inalienable.
Even if a museum is in deep financial crisis it is expected to hold on to its collections at all costs. Once they are accessioned museum objects also become part of a collections. If they were part of museums object biography amassed by individuals before they were acquired by a museum they also become associated with the actions of those collectors, their individual interests and passions and the world and time in which they were collected.
The gathering of the collections of individual collectors in museums means that museum objects become enmeshed in these complicated collections histories.
What do museums do to objects?
They become related to particular museums object biography and they are linked and associated with other objects that, setting aside the fact they belong to the same collection, you may never have otherwise connected those objects.
What I am trying to say is that the Idea that a collection is a mass of individual objects is simply not true. A collection is a relational assemblage that can be extremely complicated in terms of its formation and associations and it is susceptible to division and amalgamation. The effects of the information recorded at the time of accession can also be felt long after accession in other ways.