Reflections on “Treasured Possessions” and Material Culture

by Madeline McMahon

Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment,” an exhibit at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, folds the viewer into the fabric of life in early modern Europe. Street venders hawked their fare and pharmacists displayed their wares, and men paraded around in the latest fashion while women stepped into slippers to protect their elaborately embroidered heels from the mud and dung of the city. In the relative quiet of the house, people cooked, ate, drank, sewed, prayed, and saved money, all aided by or in the setting of their material belongings, which, of course, they also spent time arranging. Much in the same way an early modern household would display its finest objects for view, the exhibit shows off some of the Fitzwilliam’s fantastic collection of decorative arts.

The exhibit is also an instance of historians in the museum: it was co-curated by three historians from Cambridge’s faculty—Melissa Calaresu, Mary Laven, and Ulinka Rublack— and the keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Victoria Avery. Thanks to this collaboration, “Treasured Possessions” responds to recent historiographical developments in the study of cultural history and reflects their own research interests. Objects, not just archives, can teach us about the past—about production, acquisition, possession, and use. This exhibit is an homage to the rise of the study of material culture and it makes a strong case for that study’s importance by putting material evidence before the public. The cases and commentary do not merely display objects but also create a historical narrative around them—setting them into their local and larger contexts, while focusing on no one country or region in particular. The rooms depict the consumer revolution as Neil McKendrick and others have envisioned it since the 1980s, but with important addenda, noting, for example, that “alongside the production of worldly goods…[there was] a simultaneous surge in the production and consumption of items of religious significance” (case 18).

In fact, the case of “Spiritual Belongings” (18) especially captured my imagination (in part thanks to my own interest in early modern religious history). The case is in the final section of the exhibition, “At Home and On Display.” The exhibit as a whole gradually takes the viewer from the marketplace (a 17th-century print of Roman venders and their cries adorns the right-hand wall at the entrance) into the home, but to show devotional objects used in private versus those used in public—that is, in a church—is a helpful intervention. We would expect a cross or crucifix in many early modern churches, but to see the scene of the crucifixion on a bright green lead-glazed stove tile from late sixteenth-century Germany is almost startling. The tile is telling—Christ made his way into the early modern kitchen—but also obscure: we can’t be sure whether that stove fed and heated a Protestant or a Catholic family (Treasured Possessions, 241). Yet many of these objects were nonetheless crucial to confessional identity, as Laven observes in the catalogue (244). An 18th-century Dutch wall panel bearing an inscription from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians was likely Protestant, while a tin-glazed earthenware statuette of the Virgin and Child would have been a treasured possession in a Catholic home. Perhaps more than other items, religious objects reveal the limitations as well as the possibilites of the study of material culture: ultimately we cannot recreate precisely what they meant to early modern owners, even if aided by signs of use and the help of accompanying text or images.

Text and images, after all, are objects, too. Early moderns recorded their own use of objects—as in Matthäus Schwarz’s “book of fashion,” a manuscript in which he recorded his outfits for forty years—and they were eager to capture the material culture of the world around them, as the prints of venders and costume books attest. They were even interested in the material culture of the past, as we are in theirs. They also used and displayed books in much the same way they showed off their other stuff. A pendant in the shape of a book, with biblical scenes as pages, and a book of hours would have worked in much the same way, and both were deluxe goods that signalled material well being as well as spiritual.

The mere survival of early modern objects can speak volumes. Many treasured possessions were ephemeral—such as tulips and camellias, and food and drink (although some trendy foods were represented in surviving objects, such as the this pineapple-shaped teapot, the container for an even trendier drink). Textiles and leather easily disintegrated: the only full suit of clothes in the exhibition is a reconstruction, and we are fortunate to have this worn pair of sixteenth-century leather shoes. But the objects that lasted despite their delicate nature, such as the many items from the Fitzwilliam’s impressive porcelain and maiolica collection, were clearly conserved thanks to the people who treasured them in the early modern period and after. The collection and display of objects are in so many ways distinctively early modern, and the exhibit captures and plays on that, like a modern Wunderkammer of ordinary and luxury goods.

“Treasured Possession from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment” is open at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK until September 6, 2015.

6 comments

  1. Wonderful post. This sounds like a marvelous exhibit. It’s also the answer to Lady Cotton’s old question, quoted by John Selden in his Table Talk: “The Reason of a Thing is not to be enquired after, till you are sure the Thing itself be so. We commonly are at What’s the Reason of it? before we are sure of the Thing. ‘Twas an excellent Question of my Lady Cotton, when Sir Robert Cotton was magnifying of a Shoe, which was Moses’s or Noah’s, and wondering at the strange Shape and Fashion of it: But, Mr. Cotton, says she, are you sure it is a Shoe?” A generation of hard work across disciplines, a lot of precise comparison and collating of evidence, and we can recognize the strangest teapot or most worn pair of shoes. The antiquaries of Cotton’s and Selden’s time would have loved this kind of history.

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  2. Thanks! It really is–the level of scholarship behind it is staggering, including as you say, the work of scholars over the past several decades. And while the focus in the exhibit was more on how early moderns dealt with and recorded their own stuff and experiences (the costume books, the book of fashion, the street venders, a pilgrim’s souvenir from Loreto, etc.), all of it made the early modern antiquarians make more sense to me.

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    1. As you say in the post, the antiquarians aren’t the only ones fascinated by material culture. This exhibit–while clearly doing much else–contextualizes them in a powerful way. A great exhibit on travel and travel writing, which would overlap with this, as it sounds, in a couple of ways, would also do that. All of which is a way of saying that we need to see the antiquaries not only as fearless intellectual innovators (or not that alone) but also as figures in a larger period landscape. One great antiquary who would be really well served by this approach is John Stow–and of course both Parker and Caius . . .

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