Fugitive Objects: Material Culture and Historical Method

AHA Session 21
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Room M101 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Marquis Level)
Nancy Bercaw, Smithsonian Institution
Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Princeton University

Session Abstract

Archival artifacts present a particular challenge to historians because material forms of evidence generally bear traces of multiple temporalities—moments of production, consumption, use, maintenance, and disuse. Disentangling these layered historical narratives is frequently impossible without a rich contextual framework of other source materials; at the same time, the use of analytical tools from fields like art history, anthropology, and literary studies can call often unwanted attention to the historian’s role as interpreter. As a result, historians of the US have generally adopted one of two modes: the microhistorical study of a particular objects, which privileges close reading in the mode of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun (2001), or a macrohistorical viewpoint which, in the tradition of Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power (1985), which uses the circulation commodities in order to map global changes in economic, political, and social structures. Rather than viewing these projects as oppositional, the papers on this panel strike a middle path between approaches to the study of material culture that privilege the microhistorical intimacy of looking at a particular object, and a macrohistorical view on systems of circulation that uses material goods to trace the operation of power structures with an economic lens. How do material objects, in particular, call attention to the ways that social hierarchies are enacted through shifting grounds of proximity and distance?

The papers on this panel examine unconventional archives of objects that we categorize as “fugitive.” Fugitive objects point to and yet fail to hold the histories to which they refer. In these papers, “fugitive” refers not only to the complex status of artifacts within the study of US history, but also to the ways that such objects provide partial or incomplete evidence of violent struggles for power on local, national, and global scales. Through the analysis of these objects, we seek to map the development of social hierarchies, particularly on axes of race, gender, and nationality, that have shaped the lives of Americans situated in the context of their own particular place and time. Through our examinations of drawings and paintings depicting the experiences of two young boys as they were trafficked through the illegal slave trade in the mid 19th century, a book and robe belonging to a Wisconsin-born con-man impersonating an African ivory trader at the end of the 19th century, Ku Klux Klan robes made in an early 20th century Atlanta Factory, and chunks of the Berlin Wall that dispersed after the Cold War and were installed as public sites of memory across the United States, we seek to understand how the motion of objects over space and time can sharpen our perspectives on national tropes of identity that privilege or disavow such artifacts of struggle, violence, and historic shifts. In paying attention to networks of circulation and the particular material properties and qualities of the objects themselves we seek to understand the ways that these artifacts have shifted in value and meaning, sometimes but not always in relation to market forces.

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