I have always been curious about how people interact with, well, stuff. I think about it a lot, from how people used their belongings to show growing refinement 200 years ago in America, to how Americans today use brands and labels to define who they are as individuals (or how they consciously avoid brands, again to define themselves). And, of course, museums tend to be filled with objects that visitors have to relate to in order to understand and learn. So I end up reading a fair amount about people and stuff.
Rosemary Krill, one of my mentors from my Winterthur days, now teaches a museum studies graduate course at the University of Delaware. Well over a year ago she shared her syllabus
with me, and this volume was on it (yes, my to-read list is very long). The articles in this book are very academic
and dense, so unless you are a Material Culture Geek, it might not be on the top of your reading pile.
But one article really stood out for me. Brian Spooner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote “Weavers and Dealers: The Authenticity of an Oriental Carpet.” I loved this article. Not only was it well-written, but he had a number of very thought-provoking tidbits that I found fascinating. Primarily, as Westerners we seek authenticity in the goods that we buy (primarily due to the “plethora of objects and categories of objects that [industrial society] generates for our consumption” – ok, I buy that), but if a Turkish carpet is made for the Western market, is it authentic? Or has it lost its authenticity because it was made with a foreign consumer in mind, and therefore of different design and pattern than the weaver would make under normal circumstances?
Similarly, if a high-fashion handbag with an Italian name on
it is made in Asia, in the exact style and
manner as an Italian craftsman would make it, is it authentic? Or if a Mexican dish is made here in Boston with peppers that are not native to Mexico,
And does it matter to our museum audiences? I have to think that ultimately, it does. James said to me once that all those images out there of Munch’s The Scream has only increased his desire to go see one of the originals Munch painted. As storehouses of the unique and, I will say it, the authentic, museums have tremendous opportunities to show off the authentic to audiences that are searching harder and harder for authenticity instead of pastiche. The big question then becomes – how do we do it . . . . authentically??