The Language of Objects
In the course “Museum Mysteries” students study objects in the Phillips Museum’s collection with the goal of identifying and interpreting them for the general public. My colleague, Professor Zimmerman, and I like to engage in a bit of personification and say that the goal of the course is to help the objects “tell their stories.” But the more I think about this process, the more I have come to understand the idea of objects “telling” stories less as a metaphor and more as a literal description of the complicated exchange that is taking place between the researcher and the subject, and more generally, between people and things.
The eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has noted:
“Man is not only homo sapiens or homo ludens, he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts. Thus objects also make and use their makers and users. To understand what people are and what they might become, one must understand what goes on between people and things.”
What exactly goes on, and how can we better understand this profound and reciprocal relationship we have with the things of this world? In my last post I suggested that while things don’t “talk,” the way people do, they definitely communicate, especially if you make an effort to learn at least the rudiments of their language, which is conveyed not in words, but through vision and touch.
In the class we begin by exploring a basic grammar and vocabulary that allows for an “introduction”—materials (what is the object made of), construction (how was it made), design (a clue to when and where was it made), and function (what does it do?) Once these preliminaries are out of the way, our researchers can get to know their objects better and find ways to ask more subtle (personal?) questions: Was the object rare and expensive, or fairly common? What social networks did it circulate in? Does it show evidence of an easy life, or is it scarred by use? Did its status or function change over time? The answers to these questions will tell us as much about ourselves as about the things we are deciphering.
Most intriguing, and most difficult to discern, is the question of how objects shaped and organized the lives and behaviors of the people who encountered them. Forks, knives, and spoons have influenced the way people in the Americas prepare and eat their food, but we should remember that the vast majority of humans are in the habit of using other tools for the same purpose, like chopsticks or fingers, and they have developed a completely different set of etiquette and rituals as a result. Europeans came to prefer sitting on chairs to dine, write, relax, and socialize, while other cultures preferred cushions, mats, or stools for these activities—how did these preferences evolve, and what is the role of objects themselves in producing them?
Next blog: What do objects want?