The Object as Reality-Check

New York

4 January 2017

“The thing about an object is that if you put it in front of somebody they actually have to deal with it,” says curator, critic and design historian Glenn Adamson. “It’s demanding. It’s the difference between a Tweet about gun rights and putting a gun in somebody’s hand.”

Adamson is speaking a few weeks after having concluded his Objects of Dispute, a 10 session-long intensive seminar offered as part of the MA in History of Design and Curatorial Studies, run jointly by The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. The seminar coincided nearly precisely with the last two weeks of the US presidential campaign, with the final three sessions falling between 9 and 11 November — the immediate aftermath of president-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory.

“I was approached to teach the intensive,” says Adamson about the seminar, which took the form of 10 three-hour sessions. “But I developed the course on my own. I’d already been working on a regular column for the magazine Antiques about the ways you can understand historical artefacts in the light of contemporary politics and vice versa.” Adamson also took inspiration from his time as head of research at the V&A museum in London, where, in 2013, he helped develop the museum’s Rapid Response Collecting initiative together with curator Kieran Long. “They’re using contemporary objects, not historical ones, so it’s different in that way,” says Adamson. “But it seems to me it’s a real model to follow.”

The model is broadly this: Adamson would review the day’s headlines to see if anything resonated to him – rhetorically or materially – with an object from the past. The historical object could then prompt a counter-narrative to, or analysis, discussion, or complication of a contemporary issue, be it police violence, the refugee crisis, or the confederate monument debate in the US (all past topics from Adamson’s column). “So really I’ve been reactive,” he says. “Historical and material culture give you incredible possibilities, both rhetorically and intellectually, in terms of dealing with contemporary debates.”

What can be gleaned from material culture, then, that current political discourse fails to register? Fundamentally, Adamson argues, the objects have an indisputable material presence which renders them useful touchstones in a debate that is generally conducted in the immaterial realms of social media, fake news, and instantaneous opining. “Material objects are facts in the world,” says Adamson. “We’re living in this giant distortion field, and the tendency to interact with one another immaterially through online platforms has made the distortion much more powerful and pervasive. It strikes me that the material realm is a series of hard facts and the digital realm is a world of spin, fiction, claims, and counterclaims – but also of creativity.”

Below, Adamson discusses four objects or object types examined in the Objects of Dispute seminar. “These material artefacts have a factual basis and if we do justice to them, it helps give us an armature for challenging this post-truth situation,” he says. “Although it’s a terrifying situation that we’re in, it’s not unprecedented. It’s an important moment for historians to say: OK, there’s a pattern here. It has particular qualities now because of digital information economies, but you can also see a lot of resemblances. If we don’t want to go down the road of fascism, we need to engage in some pattern recognition and judge our counteractions accordingly. It’s a matter of being thoughtful and analytical as well as emotional.”

A Winchester Rifle, Model 1873. IMAGE courtesy Ricce (Creative Commons).

Glenn Adamson We talked about guns, which were very important in the election, because the NRA was really the only heavyweight institution to back Trump vociferously. We talked in particular about the Winchester rifle, which was supposedly “the gun that won the west”. There’s a James Stewart film called Winchester '73 that takes the gun as its main character. Winchester Repeating Arms Company was one of the largest gun manufacturers in the late 19th century — a series of repeater rifles they made were favoured because they were reliable and could shoot multiple times without having to be reloaded. But a lot of that is retrospective fictionalisation. What we talked about in class was how the gun has acted as a fulcrum in American history, both in terms of expanding the frontier and also in terms of creating narratives of self-sufficiency or independence that are still being used by the NRA today. Much of that arises from the technology of the gun — but also from promotional activity around the myth of the gun that was created in the early 20th century by the gun industry. We created this critical historiography of the gun, you might say.

A Wedgwood jasperware medallion, ca. 1787, and a cast iron tobacco box from the Coalbrookdale Iron Works, ca. 1800-1820, both featuring abolitionist motifs. IMAGE Gavin Ashworth (courtesy of the Chipstone Foundation).

Glenn Adamson In one case we also had historical artefacts brought in from the Chipstone Foundation that were to do with historical abolitionism. That was a way of talking about Black Lives Matter. These objects were very emotional. They show all but naked black men kneeling on the ground, praying, with shackles, and it says: Am I not a man and a brother? They’re fantastically powerful objects. On the one hand, they were made to raise money for abolitionist causes. But on the other hand they subscribe to exactly the same kind of generic dehumanising imagery of black people that you see in more stereotypical and ugly artefacts. This idea of the black body being humanised and dehumanised at the same time is really upsetting and opening it up to discussion with the students was very important.

Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, Strike Anywhere, 2007-8. IMAGE courtesy of the artist.

Glenn Adamson For one session, I had the artist Zoë Sheehan Saldaña bring her own work in. She creates exact copies of everyday historical artefacts that have a latent political implication. For example, she went through the trouble of finding out how to make a strike-anywhere match from scratch. She’s interested in the history of the 1888 London Matchgirls' Strike and the idea of carrying violence in your pocket, as well as the idea of compression – compressing the concept of the inflammatory into a practice that’s actually very patient and painstaking. A lot of her work has that kind of charge to it. Her practice is really fascinating because she holds back the content and invites you to speculate on the content on the basis of the object and that’s exactly what we were doing with the historical artefacts in the seminar too.

The pantsuit rainbow meme that appeared during Hillary Clinton's campaign in the autumn of 2016. IMAGE from

Glenn Adamson One of the sessions was about this concept of the pantsuit that Hillary Clinton is always described as wearing. What first caught my attention was this meme with the rainbow of pantsuits, and I thought it was a really great way of talking about gender construction in the election, and feminism and anti-feminism. We looked at three examples of women’s dress: the pantsuit, the corset, and the hijab. We talked about questions of normativity, appropriateness and gender identification. The pantsuit is feminine and yet it’s based on a male pattern of dress. The way Clinton consciously manipulated the codes of power in her attire, and also how this was an issue for a female candidate but not for a male candidate seemed really potent to me. For example, Trump had that red hat that he was free to use symbolically, whereas Clinton was in a much more restricted space in terms of what she can do sartorially. It shows you how the power dynamics of gender were actually inscribed into the bodies of the candidates. We’re always talking about imagery and representation, and hardly ever about the real body.