Weekly readings: history from things

I got a warm, fuzzy feeling when I saw Glassie on the reading list, courtesy of the references in Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten. It emphasized the community part of “community of scholars,” the fact that citations aren’t just bullet points to hit, but at their best a record of one’s scholarly, professional, and intellectual development (between which there is a fair degree of overlap, but they’re still separate things).

I felt less than warm and fuzzy reading Deetz’s later chapters, though they were intellectually and emotionally satisfying. When I was an undergrad, I took a few classics classes, so I got used to the idea that “sources” might consist of a bit of broken pottery and the six lines of an Aristophanes play that weren’t devoted to fart jokes. In light of professional and popular fixation on ancient cultures, it is even more horrifying to consider how recent significant scholarship of African Americans really is. Somehow, Deetz’s chapters explaining the literal uncovering of mountains of evidence did more to drive home this fact than my longstanding acceptance that there was a scholarly shift in recent decades.

The quantitative aspects of archaeology came through quite strongly in both readings. If you want to make generalizations, you need as much data as possible. And you do want to make generalizations, because that may be all that is available and in any case it’s valuable context (knowing Mrs. Smith owned pearlware is not particularly meaningful if you don’t also have a sense of what her neighbors owned). The reading reminded me why I like my history interdisciplinary: other fields have very interesting things to say, either supplementing what historians do or filling in the blanks. (It also reminded me why I’m on the history end: I haven’t ever been on a dig, and I’m not sure I’d have the chops/interest to be particularly useful, and I found myself skimming Glassie and Kniffen because if the methodology was meant to yield information about generalized trends I wanted to get to those generalizations. But those mounds of data sure are nice. Especially now, when we have so many different tools for slicing and dicing numbers.)

One of the tensions in the class project is the balance of individualized and generalized information. We’re aiming to produce 50 word captions. Museum exhibits are not monographs, or even articles; they have different goals, different strengths, and often different audiences. It’s possible I won’t be able to identify the “L” of the crazy quilt*…but even if I can, how relevant is that information in the context of the planned exhibit? Is it more important to place the quilt in the context of “L”’s life, or 1880s Philadelphia, or women’s labor, or print culture, or technological development, or art history, or Victorian sentimentalism, or…really, the possibilities are endless. I could do a very different 50 words for each block. The problem is picking one perspective and not just doing it well, but doing it in a way that makes the exhibit an integrated whole.

* More on that in my next post.