V&A Podcast - Museum Collections as Historical Evidence
Season 1, episode 14
Museum Collections provide a wealth of information about the past. Using objects as historical evidence prompts us to ask new questions of the past, which can shed light on cultural, economic, political and social history. Evelyn Welch, a trustee of the V&A and Professor or Renaissance Studies at Kings College London joins Giorgio Riello, Professor in Global History at the University of Warwick, to discuss objects as historical evidence and the surprising discoveries that can result from this method of research.
(GA:) Welcome to the V&A Podcast. Bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the V&A. In this episode we will be discussing museum collections as historical evidence. There is no doubt that many people come to the V&A for our collections, over two and a half million objects at last count. Many come to marvel at the beauty of the objects in our care, others to gain inspiration for their own creative pursuits. But for some of our visitors our collections are most important because they provide something else, evidence. Every object is a fact in the world, and though it might be decontextualized or indeed quite different from the way it was when it was first made and used, the objects in our collections nonetheless are a vast archive of valuable information about the past. Here to discuss the V&A’s collections as a form of material evidence are two historians. Giorgio Riello is a professor in Global History from the University of Warwick, and Evelyn Welch is professor in renaissance studies at Kings College London, Professor Welch also serves as a trustee at the V&A. Giorgio, Evelyn, I would like to start off by asking you a general question first. How do historians go about using objects in their work? What’s the difference between using objects and other kinds of evidence?
(GR:) Well the other kind of evidence that we normally use is documents, and documents tend to be in archives. So first of all it is the location of objects, and I am not saying that all objects that we actually use in history are in museums, in fact there is quite a range of objects. From very small objects, it might be jewellery to larger objects, which might be pieces of furniture, but we also have to consider the importance of buildings that are not necessarily found in museums, for museums are buildings. Therefore there is a variety of what we might call material culture. The objects might come from our attics, be photographs that we treasure as heirlooms, there is quite a variety of things. In essence they are to be found in a much wider range of places compared to the traditional way in which our targeted research of archives and documents has been framed, and that poses a big challenge for us.
(GA:) Evelyn, what do you think about this as a general proposition? How do historians use objects in a way that might be different to how other people use objects or historians use other kinds of evidence?
(EW:) Historians ask questions, and according to the questions you are asking you need different types of evidence. If you want to know what was the gross domestic product of Britain in the eighteenth century, probably going to an archival source or a written source is the best place to get that answer. If you wanted to understand what was involved in making a waistcoat in the eighteenth century, or what was involved in eating in the seventeenth century, one place that you couldn’t find evidence for the realities of that would be in written material. Because what you would be finding in written materials particularly in printed books for example would be a lot of rhetoric about how you should dine, or how workers should behave. If you actually go to the objects themselves, and you look at a fork and you recognise it has two tines rather than the four you’re used to, you start thinking about jabbing at your food, as opposed to cutting it up in the way that we understand. If you start touching fabrics you realise the huge amount of sheer labour that’s involved in making the thread as well as in making the actual textile itself. Then you start thinking about, well actually how was that thread made? Thinking about divisions of labour, thinking about questions that in the end probably you will have to go back into the archives to fully answer. It’s not either or it is the combination of the object, which helps you partly answer a question, but also poses a whole range of questions that you simply wouldn’t get from sitting in a classroom, or a library, or in an archive.
(GA:) So the objects actually prompt research questions and research projects?
(EW:) Think of the range of objects in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries and what they prompt, particularly if you’re touching them, is where do these materials come from? How did you actually get the colour red in the fifteenth century? Long before you could just go to a druggist and get really high quality ready made chemical colours. If you think of an object not as a bad version of a twenty first century object but as something that was made in a very different time and in a very different culture, with very different kinds of trading relationships, and very different kinds of materials. Come into the artisanal studio or to the actual home of the person who owned it then you start seeing the complexities of the culture that produced it.
(GA:) Giorgio, do you think it’s possible to generalise about what kinds of information we can get out of objects as evidence, in other words what we can learn from objects that we can’t learn from documents? One thing that occurs to me for example is in periods of time when many people were illiterate it might have been that their trace upon the earth in written form might have been quite slight, whereas the evidence that we might have about them in terms of surviving artefacts might actually be quite rich. Is that one rule you can see being demonstrated in museum collections? Are there others?
(GR:) For sure. What you are saying is that for many cultures in which the level of literacy, for instance, was very small, you wouldn’t expect to find good representation of society as a whole actually by looking at these very famous documents in archives that are the core business of historians. In that sense what the past has left us, material evidence in general, might not be representative of society as a whole. In some cases it might be representative of things documents don’t talk about. A few years ago I was very interested in those objects that are hidden inside cavities in buildings, and this is a practice which has been going on and still goes on in many parts of the world. Essentially as a form of protecting the building, so you might hide a shoe, or pieces of discarded clothing inside the cavity of one of the walls of your house.
(GA:) As a kind of magical charm?
(GR:) Yes as a magical charm.
(EW:) A talisman.
(GR:) A talisman, yes exactly. This is a very wide spread practice as we found out from a lot of renovations in recent years of historic buildings. But if you look at the evidence left of people talking about it, what Evelyn was saying earlier, this kind of rhetorical evidence is not there simply because it is a talismanic practice and you should not talk about it. There are no documents telling us ‘I have hidden a shoe in a wall of my house, or near the chimney because I want to protect myself from evil spirits’, you wouldn’t say that. And yet we have found so many of them. We know about these practices, partially because it is still there, and it’s actually analysed by anthropologists in many different cultures. We found the objects so we are able to reconstruct something that if we had to rely on documents we would never find out.
(EW:) Of course it very much depends on what museum you are in. Great national museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum have specialised and collected the finest objects. You really need to go to an archeological museum and there you see the stuff that has been randomly scattered, that has come out of rubbish dumps. Rubbish dumps are fantastic resources because they are used by rich and poor alike. The Humanities in the European Research Area project I have been involved in on fashioning the early modern creativity and innovation in Europe, 1500 – 1800 had the great advantage of working with colleagues in Copenhagen. They dug up and dealt with ten thousand pieces of textiles which had come out of the remains of Copenhagen’s moat, this was full of stuff that people had dropped over the edges of the rampart. You had fantastic gloves, you had shoes, the most amazing things that had been discarded. When you go into a conservation lab or an archaeological dig or a museum of social history you get one type of object, but clearly going into the Victoria & Albert Museum, which prides itself on showing the highest quality objects, what you are learning about is what the nineteenth, and twentieth, and twenty first century curator thought was of great importance, as much as you’re learning about the past itself.
(GA:) So museum collections are always edited accounts of the past, you could say?
(EW:) Museum collections are as rhetorical as any early modern text.
(GA:) Giorgio, can I ask you about the skills that a historian needs to work with objects? Of course if you are working with historical documents you might need to know something about the handwriting, certainly the languages, and how that archive was organised. What about working with historical artefacts? Are there particular skills that a historian needs to acquire in order to do this work?
(GR:) Definitely, this is a subject that I very often discuss with my students, who are incredibly interested in using objects in their historical research, and I think it is very important. It is the kind of skill that normally resides with what I think of as art historians. It’s an appreciation of the physicality but also the visual part of an object. It might be a two-dimensional object, it might be a print, or it might be a three-dimensional object, a piece of porcelain, or a piece of clothing. That capacity to be dealing with the materiality of the object is very important and something that has to be acquired, and I think the best way to acquire it is to actually do it, trying to do the exercise, rather than reading lots of books on how to do it. This means really having access to the objects themselves rather than simply relying on images of the objects. This entails a slightly different set of skills on the part of historians.
(GA:) I’m glad that Giorgio mentioned that question of working with images. One question I wanted to ask you Evelyn, was about the online collections at the V&A. We now have about a million records of our objects online, many with information and images attached. This is something you commonly see now - the British Museum is another great example - and many art museums as well have put their whole collections online. Do you think that kind of digital access is transforming the way that historians can work?
(EW:) Digital access is essential for understanding what a collection has, for getting a sense of being able to contrast and compare between collections, and for really starting the conversation between the historian and the object. The danger is, it’s flat, they are all exactly the same size, so a tiny miniature and a great cabinet all come out as identical online. They’re mediated by meta-narratives, and meta-labels, and of course you have to believe whatever the label says just as you would in the museum itself. The V&A and The British Museum put a lot of effort into ensuring you can trust the information. The exciting thing of course is that they are also allowing you to add your own information to this, so I think it is a fantastic start, the question then is what happens when you get drawn into it? Because at a certain point really the only way to use it as a core bit of your historical analysis is to go and see it, even better, to go and see it and to touch it.
(GA:) Do you think that historians are increasingly attracted to objects as a form of evidence? People are looking more and more frequently at collections. Do you have any thoughts on whether this is happening, and if so why?
(GR:) Generally speaking quite a few of our colleagues show an interest at least in considering objects as part of the various different types of evidence that the past has left us. This partly relates to a shift in what we think History is. It’s not just the narrarive of the great and the good, in the sense of political narratives or large economic narratives, but it seems to be more and more about cultural phenomenon particular very personal sometimes intimate cultural phenomenon that you can only capture by trying to triangulate the material evidence and also documentary evidence. If we really want to capture the life of our ancestors, whoever they are, we should go back and think about the kind of lives that they lived, the types of objects that surrounded them, we might even own some of them.
(GA:) Evelyn, do you see this in historical practice as well?
(EW:) My colleagues and my students not only in history but also in modern languages, and in English, and indeed across the humanities, are increasingly trying to ask new questions of the past. The only way to answer them in a period that hasn’t left us photographs, that hasn’t left us films, is to go back and look at stuff. Whether that ‘stuff’ is a major building which has survived, whether that’s a piece of fragmentary fabric from the medieval period, or whether it’s a knitted booty from third century Egypt. The stuff seems to somehow connect us more closely in that tangible experiential way that Giorgio was describing, and yet at the same time it has to lead us back to all the other types of traditional evidence that historians have always used.
(GA:) So it’s really a matter of combining objects with these different kinds of evidence? It’s not that you disappear entirely into material culture, it’s that you think about it in conjunction with the other kinds of source?
(EW:) You wrap the things together. You have your visual evidence, your pictorial evidence, you have your physical evidence, you have your documentary evidence. Of course as a historian comes into the nineteenth and twentieth century you can add extraordinary layers of old film, old photographs, on top of that giving you the illusion of seeing through rhetoric, but you have to remember that these are just as much constructed objects as any judicial record. (GA:) What about objects that are baffling? Or puzzling to historians? Have either of you ever run into an object that just seemed inexplicable? That almost demanded questions because it was so mysterious to you at first?
(GR:) I would say that we run into these kind of objects everyday, because a great deal of the objects that we encounter as researchers, but also very often even within the displays of a museum, are actually asking us all sorts of questions. So they are really baffling even when they are labelled sometimes you start querying if the label is actually correct, if it can be possible that it can be that kind of thing.
(EW:) I have an example which takes us back to Giorgio’s talismanic objects. About four or five years ago in Northampton they were looking at a seventeenth century house, and they pulled out a piece of black velvet covered in buckram which was in the shape of an oval with eyes and a crude mouth, and next to it they found a button. I was very interested in masks and masking and tried to understand what this was as part of the fashioning the early modern project, and doing some research, some online research, some library research, some looking at above all images, and finding the one surviving other example of this is a mask that the doll in the British Galleries called Lady Clapham wears. This is a late seventeenth century visardmask which was held in the mouth with apiece of string held onto a button which was found next to this mask. So women would put it on they would hold the button or bead in their mouth and that would hold the mask against their face. I’ve now come up with the idea that this was a wonderful way for a woman to be able to easily take her mask on and off literally by just dropping it out of her mouth or then sucking it back up without having to ask anyone to untie it behind or underneath her bonnet.
(GA:) Right, well that is a great example of creating a whole world around an object, and a very evocative picture that you have just painted for us. Thank you very much to Evelyn Welch, and also to Giorgio Riello, for this walk through the way that historians use museum collections as a form of evidence. I hope that you have enjoyed listening, and I also hope that you will join us again next time for the next episode of the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
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