Sunday, March 5, 2017

Stuck on an Object

All of us who work in museums see lots of objects--so many sometimes, that they seem to run together. But sometimes there's an object whose physicality or story sticks with us, for reasons we can't seem to explain.  My new job is just a block or so from the Morgan Library and last week I made a quick lunchtime trip--my first visit.  There is a major exhibit on Emily Dickinson there, all of which I enjoyed, but I found myself drawn to this tiny, house-shaped poem. In her tiny, unique handwriting, there it was:

The way Hope builds his House
It is not with a sill –
Nor Rafter – has that Edifice
But only Pinnacle –

Abode in as supreme
This superficies
As if it were of Ledges smit
Or mortised with the Laws –

I've thought about this piece of paper many times since that visit. But I still find myself puzzling over why. Is it that a house and a reclusive poet just seem to go together?  Is it the sense of hand, of personality in the writing?  Is it the combination of shape and poem?  It might be all of the above.

It was a gentle reminder of the many, many ways that each visitor approaches an exhibit and how many different ways there are to find meaning in the object. A generous exhibit design allows each of us to find our way.

What's a memorable object you've seen recently?


northierthanthou said...

The most memorable object I've seen lately would be a poison pill at the Inupiat Heritage Museum here in Barrow, AK. It's essentially a piece of bayleen folded up and tied together. In the days before guns came to the arctic, it would be put inside fat and left for an animal to eat. As the animal digests, the tie dissolves and the bayleen springs out. It would be an awful way for an animal to die, and a rather ingenious technique for getting food and clothing.

Unknown said...

One of the most interesting objects I have seen lately was a very unique chair at the newly opened Eustis Estate in Milton, MA. While touring the museum for a class I was on a time constraint and was rushing through the building. Located in the second floor hall the chair made me slow my hurried pace and take a closer look. Called the “twin chair” by the Eustis family, it is more like a multi-level bench. The middle section is at a typical chair height and has a beautifully carved back, while the two seats on either side are lower to the ground. The Eustis Estate app that serves as the guide for the house states that the chair was specially commissioned by Mary Hemenway, mother of Ms. Eustis and grandmother to twin boys, Fred and Gus Eustis. The loving grandmother commissioned the chair to make it easier to read to her grandchildren. I love that this object is both beautiful and functional, and that is is a space intended for the family to spend time together.

I tend to be most taken by objects that illuminate things that the owners valued simply by having existed in the space. Mary Hemenway wanted to be able to read to her grandchildren when they came to visit and had one of the more unique, elaborate pieces of furniture I have seen created for the sole purpose of sharing special moments with her family. The ornate back of the chair has the phrase “once upon a time” carved into the back, which evokes both the image of children being read a story, but also makes me wonder what stories the family could tell of memories they have made while sitting in the chair.

I really liked your point that everyone has different reactions to objects, and that “a generous exhibit design allows each of us to find our way.” There was no label next to the chair, and it allowed me to take a minute and wonder what the family was thinking when they put such a distinctive piece in their home. I also appreciated that with the app that Historic New England has created, after I had my initial experience with the chair I was able to read about the provinace of the object, and to see photos of the chair being used by the family. I know that there has been some debate within the museum community about how much information labels should convey, or if there should even be a label next to objects. I think the technique of making information about the object available without placing it next to the object allows each visitor to experience the object in a singular way.