Written, Spoken, Shown, and Remembered: Material Culture at Historic Sites

As an overview of our readings this week for Studies in American Material Culture, we read Cary Carson’s 1997 evaluation of the field of material culture.[^1] In this essay, Carson grapples with material culture’s failure to enter the mainstream of academic history.

One problem, Carson argues, is that scholars working in material culture have often taken shortcuts. Rather than starting with a research question, they have begun with a set of artifacts and attempted to divine the relationships between them. Too often, he continues, they have simply plopped down a fancy philosophical framework (perhaps Foucault!) onto their artifact sample and- Voila!

Photo of a spinning wheel at Colonial Williamsburg by Brian Holland under Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Original at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bholl7510/9365650434/

These shortcomings could be avoided by beginning with research questions relevant to the broader discipline of history and doing fastidious work to illuminate the particularity of the artifacts’ context. In short, Carson hopes that material cultural theorists will delve into the local while engaging with the national.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich does just this, drawing on rafts of textiles created by women in early 19th century New England and weaving them (excuse the pun) into an exploration of gender, labor, and race of the places and times in which they lived.[^2] Rebecca K. Shrum produces a similar study of the intersection of women’s labor and technology a century and a half after Ulrich’s subjects through analysis of Mr. Coffee’s entry into the kitchen appliance market.[^3]

Yet the further I got into Carson’s essay, they less sure I was that I agreed with him. One way forward, Carson posits, is to show America’s “seesaw struggle to enlarge or limit the promise of plenty” (422). Material culture, he suggests, is a relevant tool in bringing justice because justice (and injustice) involves stuff.

As a case study of this material justice, Carson sets out to improve upon an exhibit about persecution of Japanese Americans during World War II.[^4] It is a little hard to know what the original exhibit looked like, but Carson’s chief complaint seems to be that it was “wordy” and relied on “long label copy and even longer videotaped interviews” to communicate emotions of the people who were persecuted (424). Carson advocates for giving objects “juicier parts” in communicating the complexities of internal response to internment or deportation.

Photo of Heart Mountain internment camp by Kelly Michaels, used under Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ Original at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rocbolt/10197994314/

Sherry Turkle agrees with Carson (I think) that emotional connection and reaction are primary ways to engage with artifacts. In her introduction (which we read for last week’s class) to Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Turkle describes how an object can “bring together intellect and emotion.”[^5] My favorite distillation of this is Turkle’s mantra: “We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with” (5).

Yet Carson seems to believe that emotional meaning of objects can be collective, that visitors will see a carefully staged reconstruction of an internment camp barracks and come away with similar conclusions to those he did. In my experience at historic sites, visitors often come away with messages that differ greatly from the interpreters’ intentions. What if they looked at the spare barracks and felt that such accommodation was overly comfy for suspected enemies of the state?

Carson believes that objects can “make injustice sensory” (427), yet he should know better than most how difficult that is. As one of Colonial Williamsburg’s top historians, Carson oversaw the largest-scale attempt to put critical social history on display and into visitors hands. If ever there was a place that could “make injustice sensory,” the former colonial capital, with a 50% enslaved population during its period of interpretation is it, but Williamsburg has come under fire for soft-pedaling the realities of slavery.

In the early 1990s, during Carson’s tenure at Williamsburg, two anthropologists, Richard Handler and Eric Gable, conducted an ethnographic study of the site. Their work (which was assisted by graduate student Anna Lawson) resulted in numerous journal articles and finally in a 1997 monograph The New History in an Old Museum. While Carson was instrumental in Handler and Gable’s access to the site, he soured of what he saw as their sophomoric analysis of the power structures at play in Williamsburg, writing a strident rebuttal to Handler and Gable’s work in the June 1994 issue of The Journal of American History alongside one of their essays.[^6]

One of the most valuable products of Handler and Gable’s research is their essay “Public History, Private Memory: Notes from the Ethnography of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, USA,” published first in Ethnos in 2000 and later in Amy K. Levin’s Defining Memory.[^7] While Williamsburg’s historians want to communicate a complicated history and the marketing team wants to sell the idea of collective memory and American identity, Handler and Gable suggest that visitors are fundamentally creating family memories.

One of Handler and Gable’s most memorable anecdotes in “Public History, Private Memory” is actually a perfect scenario for material culture analysis. A visitor recalled, for the anthropologists, that on a visit to Colonial Williamsburg many years before, she had become enthralled by a saltcellar on the table at one of the sites taverns. This visitor then remembers seeking out a replica in the museum gift store:

“And … we were very poor, so we scraped our pennies together so I could buy my saltcellar and my pepper shaker. And of course I treasure them. Since then, I’ve come back, and I have [bought] a lot of things — but nothing as meaningful as the little saltcellar and the pepper shaker.” (quoted in Handler and Gable “Public History, Private Memory 244-245)

This woman is “thinking with the object she loves” and what she remembers is primarily the poverty of a past time in her life. She likely recalls the first experience of the saltcellar in the tavern in visceral ways, but her memory of purchase of the utensil is more deeply connected to her own past rather than colonial Virginia.

A historical site is full, too, of objects that elicit stronger reactions than a saltcellar. Like Robin Bernstein’s “things” there are sights and activities that visitors respond to in scripted ways. The village stocks, for instance, elicit the same sort of pose as the jailhouse photos Bernstein examines in “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race.”[^8]

Reconstructed sites may also verge on the uncanny, which Turkle acknowledges as another widespread trigger of emotion even without a personal connection (8). Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg are unlikely to recognize the uncanniness of the reconstructed town, but repeat visitors may be discomfited by modifications to the reconstruction, as when Williamsburg staff famously decided to stop repainting outbuildings regularly.

None of these involuntary scripts or queasiness at the uncanny are what Carson was after in his recommendation for the field of material culture. In his last paragraph Carson states relatively clearly, albeit through a surrogate, his vision for future material culture analysis. That it tells the story of “Becoming American: The Struggle to be Both Free and Equal,” the title of the 1998 Interpretive Plan for Colonial Williamsburg.

I have come to realize that much of my discomfort with the second-half of Carson’s essay has much to do with the current political climate. In 1997, he confidently asserted:

“Women and men who take time to read books about history, watch it on television, and visit history museums expect it to add up to something. What they want is a candid, coherent, inclusive American history narrative that tells them how such an assortment of fractious people has nevertheless made and remade the nation that we still all call home.” (421)

In 2017, I am left worrying that a large portion of Americans who have the time to read books about history and watch it on television, those that can afford to visit history museums, do so expecting to be transported to a comfortable past. A past that lacks the inconvenient presence of people who look or live differently from them asserting their rights. I worry that at reconstructed historic sites, these “ordinary history learners” come away with exactly the “coherent” (though certainly not “inclusive”) history that they went there for.

In contrast, one of the things I like about an effective object study is that it can destabilize what we know. Bernstein’s eleventh-hour revelation that the race of the woman grinning above the racist caricature was unstable in the 1930 census does this. Elements of the exhibit on Japanese internment have the capacity to do so, if they are interpreted rather than standing on their own. I’ll never look at a Mr. Coffee the same way again. Colonial Williamsburg and other sites of their ilk have done this successfully, when they invite black and native interpreters to represent themselves as well as their own history[^9], yet I worry that most visitors receive very different messages.

Despite my resistance to the latter half of Carson’s assessment of material culture in 1997, I think a couple of his recommendations–that writers engage with the broader academy and do so while carefully exploring the particularities of a specific case study–are very sound. Many of the readings chosen for us this week fulfill that promise and I suspect that were Carson to revisit this question, the essays written by Ulrich, Bernstein, Shrum, and Jennifer Van Horn (which I was only able to skim) would make the honor list.

Who will write about this coffee maker’s effect on the world? Photo by Simon Law, used under Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ Original at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sfllaw/329707619/


[^1] Cary Carson, “Material Culture History: The Scholarship Nobody Knows,” in Ann Smart Martin and J. Ritchie Garrison, eds., American Material Culture: The Shape of the Field (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 401-28

[^2] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “An Unfinished Stocking, New England, 1837,” in The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 374-412.

[^3] Rebecca K. Shrum, “Selling Mr. Coffee: Design, Gender, and the Branding of a Kitchen Appliance,” Winterthur Portfolio 46:4 (2012): 271-98.

[^4] “A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the United States Constitution” at the National Museum of American History.

[^5] Sherry Turkle, “Introduction: The Things That Matter,” in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 3-10.

[^6] Cary Carson, “Lost in the Fun House: A Commentary on Anthropologists’ First Contact with History Museums,” The Journal of American History 81, no. 1 (1994): 137–50.

[^7] Eric Gable and Richard Handler, “Public History, Private Memory: Notes from the Ethnography of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, USA,” Ethnos 65, no. 2 (January 1, 2000): 237–52; Amy K Levin, Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in America’s Changing Communities (Lanham: AltaMira, 2007).

[^8] Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 27:4. (2009): 67-94.

[^9] Laura Peers’ study of native interpreters at fur trade sites around the Great Lakes is the best study of the power of these sorts of interactions. Laura L. Peers, Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions, American Association for State and Local History Book Series (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007).

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