Victorian Things Revisited @ Keele University, 29th June 2012
This meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar focused on the theme of "Victorian Things Revisited", seeking to explore where the "material turn" has taken us in Victorian Studies and what new possibilities for research still remain. Throughout the day, each of the 6 presenters approached the theme of material culture from a different angle, demonstrating the rich diversity of approaches to material culture and opening up many new possibilities for new directions in this research.
The day started with a panel comprising of myself and Mary Addyman, a first-year PhD student also based in the Department of English here at Warwick. I gave a paper titled "'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place c. 1851", which I'll write about in a separate post as the panel generated a lot of ideas that I want to follow up in more detail. Mary's paper explored new research into the collection of Richard and Henry Cuming, a father and son who collected a vast array of objects from the 1780s to 1900, including geological and archaelogical artefacts, art, textiles, ceramics, Egyptian objects, and objects representative of British social history - including everyday packaging. The disorganisation and variety of the Cuming collection goes against our usual understanding of the Victorians as systematic collectors imposing order in a disordered world, but Mary sought to find a more nuanced reading of the way in which this disorganised mode of collecting might be read, thinking about the collector recording his place in the world and the sense of responsibility to future generations involved in this accumulation and preservation of the present. Mary ended by considering the temporality of collecting, drawing out some fascinating links between collecting and geology.
Image from Southwark Collections
In the second panel, two papers centred around objects that sit at the intersection between bodies and things and trouble the binaries between living and dead, natural and artificial. Julia Courtney (Open University) raised the question of "Living Things?" in her paper on Victorian taxidermy. This focused first on taxidemied animals and birds that are posed in scenes that recreate their "natural" environments, and then on animals that are anthropomorphised in artificial scenes, such as a scene of mice sat at a table playing cards. This raised interesting questions about the relationship between bodies and things, the point at which a body becomes a "thing", and by what means the status of "thing" is ascribed. Courtney also thought about the differences in cultural appreciation for taxidermied animals, comparing the Victorian fashion for and fascination with taxidermy as something that evokes a pleasurable response, versus the rather more reluctant way in which taxidermy is viewed - with humour? disgust?- today.
Walter Potter's Red Squirrels Playing Cards, c.1871
Courtney was followed by Michael Lee (Leeds Met) whose body-object discussions took a literary turn in a paper on "Eating Things in Lewis Carroll". Lee began with a theoretical exploration of the different conceptualisations of things and objects, raising the question "what kind of a thing is food?" His subsequent discussion of Alice in Wonderland suggested that through Carroll's use of food the borders between different types of things are blurred: food is a social thing which moves within a network of circulation that supercedes the human. Food also troubles the boundaries of body/thing and life/death: the body itself has the potential to be a thing that can be consumed, moving from subject to object status. In networks of consumption, Lee suggested, everything is edible and everything is social.
In the final panel of the day we moved towards science and industry. Stella Pratt-Smith's paper "Material, Manufactured, Modern: the Science of Victorian 'Thing' Culture" posited a more thorough understanding of the relationship between science and material culture: science was not just one aspect of Victorian material culture but central to allowing that material culture to come about. Her paper demonstrated how putting Victorian things into the contexts of their production, exploring and understanding how things were made, is not only illuminating for our understanding of particular Victorian objects but also for interpreting the significance of the Victorians' fascination with things. Pratt-Smith's discussion of the science of various objects, such as the development of purple dyes that held a particular allure and new glass technologies, provided a fascinating insight into the scientific developments fuelling material culture. This was particularly interesting in light of the recent Transforming Objects conference: Stella referred to Jim Mussell's discussion of chlorodyne (and I must thank Stella for her generous mention of this blog in her talk and handout!), and I was also reminded of Eugenia Gonzalez's talk on narratives of doll production.
Stephen Etheridge (Huddersfield) finished the day with a paper on "Brass Instruments, Bandsmen and Working-Class Identity: Brass Bands in the Southern Pennines and the creation of working-class identity, 1840-1900". Etheridge began by noting the overly romanticised notion of brass bands as symbolic of northern working-class culture, but moved in to offer a more nuanced understanding of the role of brass bands in the Southern Pennine region and the various ways in which bands featured as a centre-point of masculine working-class identity. Etheridge noted the strong community element of this identity: bandsmen forged a strong group identity within their band and were well known within the local community, and this was strengthened by the competitiveness between bands from different towns. But there was also a particularly strong individual identity forged through relation to one's own instrument: after the death of a player the instrument would feature as a strong reminder of the individual, often proudly displayed in his memory - we were also shown the image of a gravestone decorated with a trombone engraving. Here again the intersections between people and object, life and death, and the permanence of objects in comparison with the mortality of people - taking us full circle to the ideas raised about collections in Mary's paper.
There were many interconnections arising throughout these papers, more than I could hope to cover here, and I was struck by how such a diverse range of perspectives on material culture could simultaneously raise so many points of interaction. This was interdisciplinarity at its best - balancing breadth and depth, generating new ideas without losing particularity or focus, and enabling stimulating and lively discussion in each of the question sessions. The day revealed material culture to be a thriving area of study with many possibilities for new directions and approaches, suggesting that this is an area which we can keep visiting and revisiting for some time to come.