Exhibit Plan and Rationale 2.0: unconstrained and impractical

This exhibit plan is a thought exercise, in which the constraints of physical space, budget, and responsible stewardship are ignored. Unsurprisingly, it is also rather more vague (and not simply as a result of time and the nature of the assignment). Solving specific problems has a way of sharpening ideas.

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Exhibit Plan and Rationale: Exhibit 2


The women’s items (trousseau dress, card case, day dress, dolman, and assembly gown) will be placed in the vitrine, with the quilt hanging in a protective case outside of the vitrine but still visually aligned with it.* The men’s items (18th and 19th century waistcoat and shoes) will be placed in freestanding cases facing the vitrine. The encased feminine objects will thus be subjected to the virtual gaze of the masculine objects, evoking women’s social roles as decorations for men and objects to be assessed. Exhibit visitors, capable of moving around the masculine objects and thus enjoying a more interactive relationship with them—while at the same time forced to look upon the feminine objects from a pre-determined perspective—will be implicated in this gaze.

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Exhibit Plan and Rationale

In designing a plausible exhibit for the objects selected from the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, our class was confronted with a series of real-world constraints. Good stewardship of the objects restricts their placement in environmentally-controlled cases inaccessible to the public and construction schedules have pushed back the target exhibit date. Most significantly, the dimensions of the vitrine, combined with the footprint of the gowns, preclude a single exhibit. Instead, the challenge is to create two separate exhibits which are curatorially feasible, marketable to a general audience, and thematically rich.

The division of objects is driven primarily by the gowns, with each exhibit to be limited to three. As there are three wedding gowns, a wedding-themed exhibit is a straightforward (if not especially innovative) way to split the objects. A wedding theme has the advantage of being an easy hook for public interest. By timing the exhibit to coincide with other local events—the 2014 Bridal Expo, for example—there may be the opportunity to generate publicity and attract an audience interested in the general subject, who might not otherwise have any particular interest in nineteenth century costumes.

The tightly targeted theme of the first exhibit risks standing in stark contrast to the second exhibit, which cannot simply be presented as the “everything else” exhibit. Themes of social status and performance can be carried over from the wedding exhibit, knitting the two exhibits together. The impact of the Centennial ties into the performance aspect, and as all the Centennial-related objects are part of the second exhibit, this is where we evoke that particular moment of Philadelphia history. The wedding split also has the advantage of segregating two objects whose connection to locations outside of Philadelphia is of primary importance: the corset (Reading, PA) and the 1850s wedding gown (Salunga, PA). The second exhibit affords the freedom to play up the Philadelphia connection, compensating for the lack of a strong wedding theme and removing the necessity of using an asterisk any time we refer to the city. (Even the quilt, which I suspect was made in Clearfield County in central Pennsylvania, has a sufficiently strong connection to the Centennial that I feel comfortable framing it as a Philadelphia object.)* The necessity of splitting the exhibit can thus be seen as a feature rather than a bug: it allows for the highlighting of themes which are strongly demonstrated by a subset of objects, hopefully resulting in two distinct (though not unconnected) exhibits in which object interpretations reinforce one another.

Exhibit 1
Exhibit 2

* Samuel Clark Patchin (father of Margaret Heims and maternal grandfather of Louise Beck) relocated to Clearfield in the mid-nineteenth century, and Louise Beck was born in that county in 1889. It seems reasonable to suppose that Margaret Heims (my proposed quilt creator) resided in the area during the intervening years. See Grace Patchen Leggett, The History and Genealogy of the Patchin-Patchen Family (Waterbury, Conn.: The Patchin-en Family Association, 1952), 342-344; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925; Collection Number: ARC Identifier 583830 / MLR Number A1 534; NARA Series: M1490; Roll #: 1333, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012.

Weekly readings: new directions

I like Sensing the Past for its survey quality, and I’m glad I read bits of it a bit early. It helped provide context for names, like McLuhan, which popped up in classroom conversation.* Yay, interdisciplinary enrollment!

Discussion of aural geography was interesting, particularly in the urban context, with the attendant issues of class. I was reminded of an NPR story wherein the health of a rain forest could be assessed after listening to a thirty second recording. The parallels emphasize the biological nature of humans, and the ways in which the artificiality of the built environment is (at least on some axes) an artificial distinction.

Smith talks about the performative nature of sound, partially in opposition to other means of communication (42). I’m not entirely sure I buy that; at a minimum, I don’t think it’s uncomplicated. Yes, there is clearly a performance aspect to sound. But it’s different depending on context. The active, critical reception† of a musical performance is not like the approach to routine verbal communication. I feel like this is a good place to tie in Blue Jeans and the concept of the ordinary, though I think it becomes a bit more slippery when the ordinary behavior is divorced from a material object. (At least, a little more slippery in my brain.) Furthermore, I don’t buy that, say, writing is non-performative. The message is tailored for a specific audience; it may be a straightforward transmission of information or intentionally provocative; pseudonymity may further complicate the interaction between writer and audience, etc.

Similarly, I questioned assertions of the subjectivity of odor (71). How does one really assess the objectivity of sensory input across a population? Is that question better dealt with by neurologists or philosophers? Is it possible that perceptions of subjectivity are due to inadequacies of language, or is that the same thing in the end? Does a gender binary come into play? Vision is masculine, scent is feminine; the masculine is also spiritual, scientific, objective, whereas feminine is corporeal, emotional, and subjective…but does that give rise to a chicken-and-egg problem, in which gendered assumptions may drive perceptions, rather than the other way around?

Implications for an analysis and history of the quilt, and the design of the exhibit, are ambiguous. The objects are all of recent enough vintage that I don’t think we need to worry too much about drastically different sensory relationships at the time of their creation and use (which is not to downplay differences between eras, but a bunch of sensory milestones—the Protestant Reformation, the beginnings of the Enlightenment and the Modern—comfortably predate our period). Due to practical material constraints, we can’t use the objects to engage all the senses. But even if we can’t make explicit use of the full range of visitors’ senses, I still think it’s helpful to keep in mind the many ways in which humans do interact (with varying degrees of consciousness) with objects. If nothing else, Smith’s book highlights the importance of considering historical actors’ sensory interactions with these objects, and their environment in general. It will also give us a more nuanced understanding of the limitations of the object-in-a-case mode of exhibit, and hopefully we’ll be able to find ways to compensate.

* It also helped give me a sense of where I’d need to situate a potential project, which still seems interesting but less doable in the timeframe.

† Smith pings James H. Johnson to discuss the evolution of a new type of hearing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. I could not help wondering if Mary Gentle was pinging the same source in The Black Opera, shifted to her fun alternate Italy. (I’ll cosign all the problems raised in this review, but aspects of the book were sufficiently entertaining to distract from the objective failings and earn the “fun” designation.)

Weekly readings: objects as agents

I enjoyed Dan Rose’s “Active Ingredients,” which was “fun” (as billed) but also meaty. I appreciated the engagement with text as part of an object: language which is intended to function as language, divorced from metaphor but still tied to a physical object (in this case a bottle of shampoo). I’m reminded a bit of David Levy’s examination of receipts in Scrolling Forward, all the social, linguistic, and technological processes implied in their existence.

Also amusing is the way in which Rose turns anthropological assumptions on their head, becoming at once anthropologist and informant. In The Lowell Experiment, Stanton wrote about the difficulty of anthropologists examining their own tribe, and Miller and Woodward specifically extoled the virtues of allowing informants to direct ethnographic inquiries in Blue Jeans. Rose’s meta methodological turn thus has the potential for illumination as well as some inherent pitfalls.

In The Prosthetic Impulse, I found the intersection of masculinity, queerness, and disability in Serlin was an interesting topic, but I ended up wishing the perspective had been flipped to engage more directly with individuals’ relationship with their sexuality, disability, and prosthetic devices. (Our recent ethnography-heavy reading has me interested in personal narrative, I guess. And Erin has a very good point about the lack of women, in a survey of the topic that stretches into the twenty-first century.) My attention was caught by Lev Manovich’s discussions of experiments in which thinking about rotating an object took as much time as physical rotation (213). For all that our brains can become rewired, based on recurrent practice and changing circumstances, we are still very much meat and tied to the real world. The book made me think of Accelerando, particularly the third chapter, which explores the pitfalls of a prosthetic memory that can be separated from the owner. My SF reading, which isn’t particularly heavy on the transhumanism, is sufficient to make me giggle at Manovich’s question: “Is it possible that much twenty-century science fiction was not about the future but simply an accurate description of contemporary military research?” (215-6). “Not about the future,” sure, because fiction tends to be about the present (wittingly or not). But no, I am reasonably confident that a lot of twentieth-century SF is not reflective of what’s going on in Secret Government Labs. Cool stuff gets used and it’s tough to keep secrets at the intersection of cyber- and meatspace. (Insert your own Petraeusgate joke here.)

The implications for the crazy quilt are primarily those of prosthetic memory. The comparative lack of linguistic components make the quilt difficult to decode by anyone except the maker (and acquaintances who may have been given explanations of symbolic importance of various components). To a certain extent, the quilt is encrypted, intended for public consumption only to a limited degree. The significance of “L” and “1887” and the particular embroidered designs are something which can now only be the subject of speculation. Even more obscure is the reason why each scrap of fabric was chosen. Were they simply purchased as scrap bundles, intended for incorporation into a quilt or other project? Or were they individually cut from existing garments, imbued (for a select audience) with the memory of their earlier incarnation? The quilt has survived much longer than its creator, or other individuals who might have been able to shed light on these questions, and will likely persist well into the future. But as a memory prosthesis, it suffers from bit rot.

Weekly readings: objects as codes

In the discussion of blue jeans as post-semiotic (or post-semiotic with an asterisk), I was reminded of the exchange between soon-to-be-Chief-Justice Roberts and Senator Schumer during Roberts’s confirmation hearing:

It’s as if I asked you: What kind of movies do you like? Tell me two or three good movies. And you say, “I like movies with good acting. I like movies with good directing. I like movies with good cinematography.”

And I ask you, “No, give me an example of a good movie.” You don’t name one. I say, “Give me an example of a bad movie.”

You won’t name one. Then I ask you if you like Casablanca, and you respond by saying, “Lots of people like Casablanca.”

You tell me it’s widely settled that Casablanca is one of the great movies.

For that matter, Roberts’s answers—Doctor Zhivago and North by Northwest—fit pretty neatly into the post-semiotic bin, too. This is apropos of I’m not quite sure what…some sort of convergence between the linguistic and the material, a complication of exactly what is signified by signifiers. (I feel like there must be a body of work that puts its fingers on exactly the point I’m thinking around, but my exposure to meaty semiotics is pretty shallow.) Language is muddier than “Clothing as Language” allows, and maybe part of this is because we’re always talking about things, whether they’re physical objects like blue jeans or media like Casablanca.* Of course, if they’re “ordinary” things (in the affirmative sense of the word used by Miller and Woodward) then I suppose it follows that language is less specific because there are more implicit assumptions. (Anybody can quote—or misquote—Casablanca, and they all know what jeans look like. If you want to converse about, oh, Primer or S-curve corsets, there’s less likely to be a common frame of reference, and more explicit language required to communicate. So maybe post-semiotic is lack of infodumps?)

How does this relate to the quilt? The connection to blue jeans is tenuous; the mere fact that the quilt is constructed of what used to be apparel fabric has little implication for its use. The quilt wasn’t worn, wasn’t used to mediate social relationships and public interactions in the same way as a garment. But it was seen, it did play a role as a decorative object. More importantly, perhaps, is the period of its construction. Miller and Woodward point out that one’s relationship with blue jeans is not restricted to periods of wearing (or even ownership). The process of selection is vitally important to the psychological and wardrobe position of blue jeans; similarly, the process of quilt creation cannot be ignored. For a long time (I’m guessing at least five years) quilt production served as a marker of middle class respectability and femininity. For Margaret Heims, working on the quilt might have been the equivalent of slipping into blue jeans at the end of the day. Neither action necessarily denotes leisure, but does imply a familiar and comfortable routine, unremarkable but not at all impersonal.

* So ubiquitous that Ford Prefect got along perfectly well without ever watching it, even though he later regretted it. Until I was well into my twenties, I never actually got around to watching It’s a Wonderful Life, precisely because of its ubiquity during the ever-expanding Christmas season. I still haven’t watched Miracle on 64th Street, but Connie Willis’s “Miracle” remains perfectly explicable.

Exhibit Captions

Here is my initial pass at captions, more basic content than punchy prose at this point. I’ve eschewed specific historical details and instead focused on design elements or larger historical trends. That’s partially because the fun stuff is too speculative and partially because it just doesn’t fit, but mostly because I think Serrell’s advice about focusing on the object itself is wise. I want to work in some subset of technology, women’s fancywork, mass media, and Japonism. They’re interesting things going on at the time of the quilt’s creation, which can be physically illustrated by the quilt, and can be tied into larger narratives. So to a great extent, I think the contents of the caption should be driven by what we decide to say in the exhibit as a whole, what narrative needs to be reinforced and what gaps filled.

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Local Historical Context

The origin of the crazy quilt is unclear. Though the donor is identified as Louise Beck, no additional documentation indicates whether the quilt was a family heirloom. Beck had the means to purchase luxury items, so the possibility that she selected an art object for aesthetic reasons cannot be overlooked. But the quilting traditions of Pennsylvania,1 and the importance of fancywork in Victorian era households, should not be dismissed. In proposing Louise Beck’s mother, Margaret, as the creator of the crazy quilt, I will engage in a mental exercise which reveals something about Philadelphia neighborhoods, gender, and class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Weekly readings: objects as commodities

These readings sat down and had a conversation with prior readings. Or perhaps not a conversation: as McCracken points out, language, codes, and communication are not entirely synonymous.

I found a lot to like in Grant McCracken’s “Clothing as Language.” Generally speaking, I approve of reflexivity, and if the “language of clothing” has become a rote phrase, then it deserves to be rigorously examined before being utilized in scholarship. I think it is good to avoid too much reliance upon metaphors and similes: they can be powerful means of expressing concepts, but can easily become crutches. Metaphor as a means to study contrasts as well as comparisons (68) seems like a fruitful approach. (If there is meaning in what the girl was given and ate in the dark, then isn’t there also meaning in what she didn’t eat?)

There were also some problematic bits, minimally requiring expansion (and maybe that’s there; we only read one chapter). One valuable point (69) was the way in which clothing is “read” differently by different groups; McCracken cites age groups and classes, and Stallybrass notes a specific example of the class-based meaning assigned to clothing in the example of Fergus O’Connor’s fustian (193-4). But I can’t help thinking that this particular point is a bit of a double-edged sword when wielded in support of the differences between clothing and language. Language isn’t read the same; encoded meanings shift wildly depending on context, time period, age, class, race, etc., etc. Nor am I convinced that language—spoken or written—is invariably read as closely as McCracken describes (65). A host of other cues (body language, tone, capitalization, letter shape, paragraph structure) impact the way in which we process words. I wonder if McCracken’s privileging text unreasonably.

Peter Stallybrass’s discussion of gender in “Marx’s Coat” resonated with aspects of The Age of Homespun. Ulrich devoted much space (particularly chapter three) to the question of movables: the textiles and furniture that were women’s material inheritance. Stallybrass (198) presents the actual practice of pawning as a woman’s domestic duty, part of the management of household funds or (quoting Ellen Ross) “a stage of meal production.” Did this, perhaps, influence the impulse to assign pawnbrokers family monikers? (195) Women were not, in that case, operating quite so far in the public sphere.

Regarding the crazy quilt, gender is an issue I am thinking about, as is class. I don’t know who created the quilt or its full history. I am cobbling together an imagined (but hopefully plausible) history, in which it was made by the donor’s mother in a middle class household, passed on to a daughter who was professionally unconventionally and married into a higher tax bracket, and then given to a university rather than another family member. The interplay of gender with public and private spheres is part of that story, as is the means by which such relationships are expressed. A woman who listed no employment on the 1900 census had become the proprietor of a boarding house in 1910. It is unlikely that the type of work she performed changed very much (caring for four children, a husband, a niece, and two boarders in 1900, versus a household consisting of her sister, two daughters, and three lodgers in 1910, probably still necessitated a lot of cleaning and cooking) but the language used to describe that work changed significantly.

Weekly readings: toward a history of fashion

Fashioning the Bourgeoisie prompted me to examine some of my own theoretical assumptions about studying fashion. By default, I think of fashion in terms of gender and class, so initially I found Perrot a bit jarring. My notes for the first twenty or thirty pages are questions about why Perrot just left a quote equating fashion with undesired feminized traits sitting unexamined, why he talked about the sexualization of the female body but not the male, why women were not portrayed as actors. But then it dawned on me that I was looking at the issue differently. Perrot was not simply discounting the agency of women, he was discounting the agency of men as well.

Objects, and larger societal trends, are the actors in his story.* Despite this being a Material Culture seminar, despite object analysis, despite semiotics discussions, I still found Perrot’s approach a little disconcerting. As social history, it’s a very bloodless book…but it’s not a social history, and my preconceptions that fashion=social=women when it comes to historical subjects probably a) reveals something problematic about the way in which historical inquiry is shaped and b) reveals something problematic about limitations in my personal approach.

When researching the crazy quilt, I found it quite easy to revert to the “Who is this woman?” approach, in the hopes that it would reveal other women. And it has, and that’s useful, and I need to dig backward farther, but that’s not the whole story, or the only story. I also need to bring the object back to the foreground, I think. My initial secondary research was about general quilting trends. It was great background material, but I may be making a mistake thinking of it in terms of “background.” True, nothing I’ve read speaks to this quilt specifically. But Perrot’s book is an example of how to examine objects in such a way that generalization doesn’t matter, in fact becomes a feature rather than a bug.

Such an approach has limited application to the exhibit project. No matter how deeply we delve into the context of the objects’ use and creation, an exhibit still fundamentally showcases the specific stuff on display. But I think it’s still a useful exercise to divorce some of my research from the specific. More broadly, I think shifting focus over the course of the project—vacillating between general and specific, rather than simply progressing in one direction—is both practically and theoretically sound. Prown discussed the nonlinearity of object analysis. I like the approach both because human thought isn’t necessarily neat and will wend in unexpected directions, and also because it specifically undermines conceptions of linearity and progress, providing a useful bit of disruption and encouragement to reflect.

* In contrast, human actors abound in Ribeiro. Her nineteenth century is populated by individuals actively choosing their dress, setting wider trends or creating representations of them. The approach is top-down—Perrot diverges right from the title page—but the attention to human agency is the thing I find more notable than issues of class. Which is perhaps illogical, knowing the way less privileged classes (to say nothing of individuals) end up represented (or not) in sources and historical inquiry.