Museums are wonderful yet bizarre places. A treasure trove of pieces of the past. Hundreds of objects, rare, fragile, ordinary, extraordinary, arranged in glass cases, beautifully isolated from their original surroundings. This perhaps slightly sterile environment allows us to appreciate the beauty and ingenuity of objects. But is this really how we ought to view their history?
I’ve had my historical senses newly stimulated this year. Undertaking a course on early modern visual and material culture, I became very excited by the manifold ways in which historians can use objects to understand the past. This isn’t just a matter of looking from a distance. Over at Columbia University, Pamela Smith has entire classes of university students learning to make objects in order to understand the ways in which artisans developed an epistemology of their craft. Closer to home, this year’s seminar series ‘Things that Matter, 1400-1900’ held at CRASSH in Cambridge has acknowledged the current “material turn” by exploring a very wide range of approaches to understanding objects.
Given my fascination with new ways of looking at objects, I was naturally quite excited to be going to a conference based around the ‘Treasured Possessions’ exhibition currently showing at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I wasn’t disappointed. The curators’ fascinating discussions of the ways in which the objects shown in the exhibition informed their research illuminated how objects can help us understand past emotions and religious ideas as well as trade, skill, and fashion. We also saw just how much fun historians can have. Evelyn Welch, Professor of Renaissance Studies at KCL, stressed just how important handling objects and seeing how they were made had been to her research, genuinely adding to her historical understanding. Bill Sherman, Head of Research at the V&A, told us about VARI, the exciting new research institute for the V&A which aims to connect its collections more closely with academics and artists and designers. This includes workshops on the making of objects, experimental labs, conferences and reading groups. It looks fantastic. For historians working with material culture, the future is bright.
Zoom back to the museum, however, and I find myself asking why it should be the academics who get to have all the fun. This is not to say that curators across the country haven’t done a wonderful job of creating fascinating and genuinely innovative exhibitions that capture people’s interest every day, ‘Treasured Possessions’ included. The image I’ve painted of rows of sterile cabinets is something of an exaggeration, and rather unfair. Many museums, including the V&A, the British Museum, and the Imperial War Museum now run regular object handling sessions. Others, such as Birmingham’s Museum of the Jewellery Quarter are centred around fully-functioning workshops which bring the objects alive. Curators and others in the field of museum studies have been thinking about how to combine access to the materiality of objects with conservation and accessibility for years. Yet given concerns about funding cuts, expensive initiatives such as hands-on workshops may simply become unfeasible. As academic historians catch up with debates about materiality and explore the role that it plays in their own work, might they not be able to help? If historians can make their work public, advertising just how important access to the material has been for their work, this can surely only help the arguments of hard-working and immensely creative museum curators as they battle for funding. Equally, there can be few better ways to promote history in public than to seek to enhance the stories that objects tell. Academics are finding new value in the material. The question is now, how can we share it?
 Melissa Calaresu and Katherine Tycz, ‘Consuming and Collecting the Ordinary and Everyday’; Mary Laven and Suzanna Ivanic, ‘Religious Things’; Ulinka Rublack and Sophie Pitman, ‘Objects and Emotions in the Early Modern Age’. Papers delivered at ‘Treasured Possessions’ conference, St John’s College, Cambridge, 11 May 2015.