ISBN: 978 0 415 49218 8 (pbk), 292 pp., RRP A$67.00
On the cover of this book a young child and a tyrannosaur are in digit-to-dentition engagement. It is an evocative image considering the book's content. Despite the warnings of some practitioners in the pop culture world of museums to 'never work with small children and dinosaurs', it's a common metaphor when discussing the relationships between object and audience. The image seems to almost capture that elusive moment of contact when engagement translates into meaning.
This book is a collection of work that focuses on the multi-faceted relationships between people and objects. It is woven together by some clever editorial basketry from Sandra H Dudley, a social anthropologist from the Leicester Museum Studies Department, recently reported to be the most research-intensive group, in any discipline, anywhere in the United Kingdom. There is a constant stream of books from the group that rapidly find a place on the bookshelves of museum scholars around the world.
These essays are on the multidisciplinary intersection of material culture theory and the contradictory museum context as both systematiser and decontextualiser, or constrainer and liberator of meaning. At the outset, some surprise is expressed that despite advances in material culture theory in recent times, there has been little impact on museum practice. This is either a mark of the book's ambition, a complaint about organisational intransigence in the sector or perhaps a combination of the two.
The essays in the book, mostly case studies, personal research projects and reports, are divided into three sections: 'Objects', 'Engagements' and 'Interpretations'. As it is impossible to consider any object without engaging with it and attempting some form of interpretation, there is considerable overlap between these three broad categories. Section headings should be considered as indicative only. For example, one of the objects in the first section is, in fact, 'ideas'. There is a lot of problematising the very notion of materiality throughout.
I would count myself more a practitioner than theorist. For me, some chapters were an absolute joy to read, impossible to put down, with inspiring insights. Andrea Witcomb's essay on the model of Treblinka, the maker, and those who encountered both, leave the reader in no doubt about the power of objects to mediate meaning. Nuala Hancock's essay, 'Virginia Woolf's glasses', that could just as easily have been called 'Vanessa Bell's cupboard', left me urging the piece on to greater lyrical heights as the writer's joy was so obvious. Wing Yan Vivian Ting's efforts to deepen different audience responses to museum objects through imagination and creative use of metaphor was also a sheer delight to read because of the apparent gentle ease of the researcher's connection with her research questions. As a result, it was impossible not to agree that reductive typology numbs the senses.
Other essays, however, left me somewhat cold, with a feeling that I was attempting to wade through jargon-laden treacle. Perhaps it was the same kinds of presumptive and assumptive paradigmatic preconditions that audiences bring to their engagements with objects that I was bringing to the performative process of reading and reviewing this book. Nevertheless, to précis one sentence, 'there is something in this book that is both suggestive and arresting of my perceptual and cognitive apparatus'. But when a piece on contemporary art starts with a discussion of Lascaux and Altimera, I wonder whether irony is a deliberate or accidental artifice in scholarly writing these days. Similarly, when it's noted that materials used by artists by necessity correlate with those available to them, I am searching for poignancy and insight where there perhaps may be none.
There are some minor editorial infelicities that are both surprising and annoying. Words that I hadn't seen for over a decade suddenly appear twice in the one paragraph. There is a four-and-a-half-page index in the back that is curious in terms of what has been included and what hasn't. In the afterword, Howard Morphy uses the analogy of controlled burning in landscape management by some cultures with the way collecting organisations can moderate interpretation and the access to meaning for different audiences. I couldn't help but feel that if there had been a similar approach to the cluttered and diverse understory of verbiage in this book, accessibility could have been improved and the book's ambitions more readily achieved. For me, there was a sense that it was compiled in a rush to publish, an irresistible force prevalent in the academic world where metrics of research output are regularly scrutinised and analysed by too many tiers of higher education managers. While the book will obviously find a place among the growing ranks of museum scholars, for museum practitioners balancing budgets, juggling stakeholder requirements and meeting deadlines, a more thoughtful and careful final production would have enabled a more instantaneous impact.
The book's impact on museum practice is therefore likely to be more of a slow infusion. Despite my initial reaction that Museum Materialities is something of a curate's egg, there is much to recommend it to those working in the sector. For example, Kirsten Wehner and Martha Sear's discussion of the use of object biographies in the National Museum of Australia is a great reminder of how applying Aristotelian principles to objects can significantly inform museum work. Dorsett's discussion of artist interventions in collecting organisations illuminates many creative potentialities.
It is possible to map a pathway through much of the initially impenetrable writing with a second pass at the text. I'm hoping that much of the original epistemic fuzziness that confronted me will continue to dissipate. It is, therefore, I believe a book for the museum practitioner to pack for holidays, allowing plenty of time to absorb and reflect on the contents and returning to work with a head full of interesting concepts and challenges.
Given the above, there is an alternative metaphor for the cover image. Perhaps the child is our museum practitioner making a tentative engagement with the mysterious other worldly beast of material culture theory.