Dr. Eliza Reilly
Learning from the Overlooked
I’ve always learned from my teaching, and consider it the most rewarding and energizing part of my work. But this year I’m involved in a course that has literally changed the way I think about “things” in general, or more specifically about the complex relationships among humans, things, and the history they make together. In this and following blog posts, I will sketch out some of the insights gained and lessons learned from this experience, which is still in its early phase as I write.
When Professor Alison Kibler proposed that the Phillips Museum of Art host a research seminar in material culture studies using items in the permanent collection, I saw the opportunity to tackle three goals simultaneously: document the collections, encourage innovative pedagogy, and advance student research. The timing was perfect, as a distinguished scholar in the field, Philip Zimmerman, had just been appointed our Mellon Fellow for 2012-13. Professor Kibler’s proposed title was “Museum Mysteries, “ which was pretty accurate, as I’d been telling her about the hundreds of unidentified objects in the museum’s vaults.
The museum’s permanent collection has over seven thousand objects, mostly of the type one would expect to find in an art museum: painting, sculpture, prints, photography, furniture, textiles, decorative and folk art etc. But there is also a stunning range of miscellaneous “stuff”–including coins, ladies fans, paperweights, tools, weapons, toys, apparel, and household objects. Students in “Museum Mysteries” were asked to take responsibility for an item or items in the collection that were truly “mysterious” and answer the questions: What were they made of? Who made them? What was their function? And perhaps most puzzling, how did they wind up in the vaults at Franklin & Marshall College?
Watching our students trying to pry the answers to these and other questions from their chosen objects over the last eight weeks, it became clear to me that it while things don’t “talk” the way people do, they definitely communicate, especially if you make an effort to learn their language.
Next blog: Learning the Language of Objects