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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access September 30, 2019

MatteRealities: Historical Trajectories and Conceptual Futures for Material Culture Studies

  • Ingrid Gessner EMAIL logo , Miriam Nandi and Juliane Schwarz-Bierschenk
From the journal Open Cultural Studies


“No ideas but in things!” William Carlos Williams’s leitmotif for the modernist epic Paterson seems to anticipate the current renewal of academic attention to the materialities of culture: When the Smithsonian Institution accounts for The History of America in 101 Objects (Kurin) or when Neil MacGregor, designated director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, aims at telling The History of the World in 100 Objects (2011), they use specimens of material culture as register and archive of human activity. Individual exhibitions explore the role of objects in movements for social and political change (Disobedient Objects, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Large-scale national museum projects like the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin or the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., draw attention to the long existence of collections in Western institutions of learning and reveal the inherently political character of material culture—be that by underscoring the importance of institutional recognition of particular identities or by debates about provenance and restitution of human remains and status objects. The plethora of objects assembled in systematic as well as idiosyncratic collections within and outside the university is just beginning to be systematically explored for their roles in learning and education, funded by national research organizations such as the German BMBF.1 In theatrical performances, things function as discussion prompts in biographical work (Aufstand der Dinge, Schauspielhaus Chemnitz) or unfold their potential to induce a bodily experience (The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects, GK Arts Center, Brooklyn, NY). Things are present: as heritage, as commodities, as sensation; they circulate in processes of cognition and mediation, they transcend temporal and spatial distantiations. Things figure in narration and performance, in our everyday life practices, in political activism. They build knowledge of ourselves and others, influence the ways in which we interact with our fellow human beings, and in which we express or control our feelings. They combine the apparently concrete and the fleetingly abstract. Overall, things make us do things.

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Received: 2019-02-15
Accepted: 2019-02-16
Published Online: 2019-09-30
Published in Print: 2019-01-01

© 2019 Ingrid Gessner et al., published by De Gruyter Open

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Public License.

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