A few weekends ago I took a 24-hour trip to New York, and as my Megabus hurtled down 9th Ave, a billboard caught my eye—only because there was nearly nothing on it. It read “Item #022: Capri Pants” in some Arial-adjacent font, along with a picture of—you guessed it—capri pants. White background, no logo, nothing. Over the weekend I kept seeing more and more of these cryptic billboards: Item #050: Hoodie, Item #104: Turtleneck, Item #019: Bucket Hat.
I asked the friend I was visiting if she knew anything about the cryptic-maybe-very-high-fashion billboards. She did. They’re advertisements for an exhibition at the MOMA called “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” that was on display between October 2017 and January of this year. According to the MOMA website, the show presents “111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
The MOMA’s exhibition is not the first-time historians and cultural critics have used objects as an entry point for understanding specific historical moments, socio-cultural shifts, or individual lives. In 2013, then-Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor released the book A History of the World in 100 Objects, which, true to its name, considers world history spanning over two million years through the lens of individual artifacts of all sorts. From stone hand axes to credit cards, the objects seem to speak through MacGregor’s narrative voice. Some objects—coins, vases, and thrones—tell stories of power, others—statuettes, paintings—speak of sex, but all of them share one thing: tangibility, matter, pure object-ness.
The list of things I know about my grandmother, Barbara, is short. I know her name, her mother’s name, and I know the sad way that she died. To say that these three facts encapsulate the relationship I have with her, though, would be incorrect. My grandmother made pottery—so much pottery my family doesn’t know what to do with it all. She had a huge studio, all sun-bleached and beech wood and sky-lit, that I’d visit on my trips to Los Angeles to see my grandpa, Jack. I don’t think anyone had really touched much of what was in that studio since she died in 1986. And for that, I’m glad.
The pottery she made—bowls, mugs, and vases glazed with slate grey, sweet lilacs, and deep blues too beautiful to admit—constituted Barbara herself in my childhood mind. Without any memories with her, Barbara became a book in my own head titled something like: A History of Barbara Kirsch Pinsky in 100 Ceramic Bowls.
To study the history of a place, time, or person through objects offers a unique set of advantages and liabilities when it comes to historical interpretation and extrapolation. Studying individual artifacts is a type of of micro-historical approach, meaning it is concerned with a specific story, person, or place, rather than the sweeping and often generalized narratives of nations, war, and cultural trends that students might see in most history textbooks.
Approaching the past through objects and artifacts is, I think, an essential and singular experience that allows us to engage with the past with a level of intimacy that is hard to achieve with primary sources like census data, marriage records, and death certificates—all of which of my grandmother’s I recently found, all of which make me feel, if anything, further from her. For texts like this—legal, written, governmental—can only give us a limited type of knowledge about the past.
I’m in a research seminar this semester called Family Histories, taught by Professor Kendra Field. In class, we discuss both the advantages and consequences of using different types of historical evidence. In her research, Professor Field focuses on folklore, oral histories, and other types of storytelling that have been ignored or discounted in traditional historical analysis. I think objects and artifacts occupy a similar space as folklore in terms of their relationship to what we think of as historical truth. One potential liability of approaching history through the interpretation of objects, says Professor Field, might be that there is “more room for your imagination to fill in the gaps, which means you’re relying more on your old biases.” In this way, reading history through objects would create an echo chamber for your own preconceived notions about the person, place, or era whose truth you’re hoping to uncover.
On the other hand, though, this space for imagination might be exactly what traditional historical analysis is lacking. If there will always be facts and nuances about the past unbeknownst to us, what is the harm in making an educated and imaginative guess? Professor Field adds that this kind of historical interpretation is crucial, especially for “people who either weren’t writing, whose writings didn’t survive, or who were engaged more in oral tradition.” So, we consider statuettes, coins, hoodies, and pottery to move us toward an understanding of a life that might have otherwise been erased from historical narrative, from collective memory.
I often wonder what a stranger would think of me just by looking at the objects in my room. I’ve kept journals since middle school, and used to think of those writings as the epitome of my tendency toward compulsive self-documentation. Now, though, I’m not so sure. The tangible archive of my life includes my journals, but also expands to include my yellow lamp, collages made by my dad, at least seven green jackets, and three postcards always almost falling off my wall that read: POTTERY SALE / BARBARA PINSKY / DEC 2ND 1977, 8:00 PM / 4023 IRVING PLACE / CULVER CITY, CA.
There is something about existing in space with an object, orienting your body toward it and feeling that someone else has looked at it in the same way, that cannot be felt from looking at census data, textbooks, or screenshots. Today, it’s easy to keep tidy accounts of our lives in folders and drives and timelines all tucked away in a cloud somewhere we can’t touch. Let me be clear: I’m not saying we shouldn’t document our lives online, or that there is no value to the folder on my own desktop called “screenshots lmao 2017-18,” because there is. I hope, though, that we will continue to curate archives of our lives offline and outside the metrics of university records or government data. Make books, stitch quilts, and plaster your walls with traces of places you’ve been. Let objects speak their histories, whether in the MOMA or in your living room.