material culture

Cups with Memories: Ainu Lacquer and Skeuomorphs

By guest contributor Christopher B. Lowman

If you have a smart phone handy, take a look at your phone application icon: when was the last time you saw a receiver shaped like that? Even the language associated with phones reflects physical actions no longer required: there is no dial to “dial,” and no hook on which to “hang up.” Think about this too: when taking a photograph on a phone, the sound effect is still that of a “kachunking” camera shutter, despite its absence. These are all symbols that have outlasted their original functional counterparts.

Visual or auditory symbols that retain aspects of older, defunct design are called skeuomorphs. In the last decade, the heavy use of visual metaphors in Apple’s iOS led to discussions of skeuomorphism’s definition, and its pros and cons. Listicles of skeuomorphs and other visual metaphors have been popular reading on Mental Floss and other design blogs. Skeuomorphism is not just digital: it also describes physical objects retaining material characteristics no longer functionally necessary. Horsepower describes the capabilities of vehicles long since stripped of accompanying horses. Patterns of circular holes in concrete structures, formerly imprints from the pouring process, continue to be made even when not all processes require them. Skeuomorphs can be “found in nature as well”: the orchid Ophrys apifera produces flowers shaped to attract Eucera bees, even though the bees have disappeared from much of the plant’s modern range, as illustrated by xkcd. This illustrates how skeuomorphs can occur without intention, yet still indicate an object’s origins through no longer functional physical phenomena.

Despite the popularity of the term to describe digital design, its origins have more to do with artifacts than phone applications. Dr. Dan O’Hara at London’s New College of the Humanities described skeuomorphism as “unintentional side-effects of technological evolution.” It is in this evolutionary sense that skeuomorphs become useful to anyone interested in the history of material culture: as O’Hara put it, “skeuomorphs, as a kind of ‘memory’ capacity of artifacts, can show us the processes that guide the evolution of the forms of technology.” A look at the Google Ngram Viewer, which gauges the popularity of a word over time based on publications in Google Books, reveals that “skeuomorph” was in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Henry Balfour in The Evolution of Decorative Art (1893) and Alfred Cort Haddon in Evolution in Art: As Illustrated by the Life-histories of Designs (1907), among others, used skeuomorphs as crucial evidence for studying object designs over time. For example, Balfour, the first curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, described how indigenous people in the Andaman Islands had traditionally used large shells as plates, and continued to make wooden plates with decoration recalling shells (1893, 114).

Academic interest in skeuomorphs was rooted in some of the hierarchical assumptions that defined much of nineteenth century anthropology. Skeuomorphs offered evidence of change in the types and materials of objects over time; this played into what many anthropologists believed to be a universal and linear evolution of human culture. Haddon specifically uses skeuomorphs to describe supposedly universal material transitions, such as tapa giving rise to matting, and basketry giving rise to pottery (1907, 116). Both archaeology and ethnography developed as disciplines guided by the assumption of cultural evolution, that studying “primitive” people would reveal linear developments toward “civilization,” defined as Western European cultures. Balfour describes his work as the “study of the Art of the more primitive of the living races of mankind, with a view to explaining, by a process of reasoning from the known to the unknown, the first efforts of Primaeval Man to produce objects which should be pleasing to the eye” (1893, v). This conflation of past and contemporary cultures drove ethnographic interest in the collection of objects for museums, particularly from cultures believed to be on the verge of disappearing.

Are skeuomorphs still useful for the study of material culture? Doing away with the assumption that material changes imply progression toward any particular cultural zenith, the study of skeuomorphs continues to reveal chronologies of connections between objects and people. Archaeologists use them to discuss invention, innovation, and replication (Knappet 2002, Blitz 2015), especially across cultures (Howey 2011). An example of this is a type of lacquer cup called a tuki, used in religious ceremonies by the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands north of Japan. Comparisons of different tuki over time indicate origins and meanings invisible when any one example is considered by itself.

In traditional Ainu religion, any physical being or thing that can perform in ways that humans cannot is considered a god, or kamuy. Kamuy could only be contacted through the use of specific instruments, including carved wooden prayer sticks called ikupasuy, and cups, called tuki, which held offerings of sake. Ikupasuy would be dipped into tuki and drops of sake scattered to please kamuy.


Two Ainu men using prayer sticks (ikupasuy) and lacquer cups (tuki) in prayer. Photography by Burton Holmes from Ewing Galloway, 1917.

Nineteenth century visitors to the Ainu mistakenly called ikupasuy “moustache sticks” because the Ainu prayer ceremony involved lifting both cup and stick together toward the mouth, leading observers to assume the purpose of the stick was to lift the moustache when drinking. The uniqueness of ikupasuy led to them becoming prized by collectors. When Romyn Hitchcock conducted his collecting trip for the Smithsonian Institution in 1888, his pursuit of ikupasuy earned him the name “Mr. Moustache Stick” while in Hokkadio (Houchins 1999, 149-150). Anthropologist Frederick Starr, who helped to organize the Ainu exhibit at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, also stated that ikupasuy “had a great attraction for us and we secured scores of them” (Starr 1904, 65). While museum collections contain dozens of ikupasuy, tuki were rarely collected: fewer than a dozen were collected for United States museums prior to 1920.


Romyn Hitchcock’s illustration of ikupasuy and tuki, from “The Ainos of Yezo” in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1890, 459.

The reason for the cups’ absence from collections is connected to the same theories that drew nineteenth century anthropologists to study skeuomorphs. Anthropologists lacked interest in tuki because they were trade goods rather than Ainu-made. Ainu lacquerware, including tuki, was acquired through trade with the Japanese, particularly the Matsumae clan. Exchange ceremonies appear in Japanese paintings, such as this one by Hirasawa Byōzan from 1876. However, anthropologists seeking only “pure” Ainu culture systematically ignored trade items. Anthropologist Stewart Culin dismissed lacquer and swords among the Ainu, believing that “not one of them have any artistic or pecuniary value” (75). Why was this? Recall that according to cultural evolution theory, so-called “primitive” cultures were understood as keys to the collective human past. Trade items like the tuki were corruptions: they clouded the anthropologists’ ability to observe supposedly preserved past practices. Ikupasuy were fascinating because they seemed to stem from Ainu material culture alone. Since trade items did not fit within a pure progression, but seemed wholly introduced from another culture, items like tuki were believed to lack research value.


AMNH Anthropology catalog # 70/4223

Tuki made of brass and ornamented with the mon of the Matsumae clan. Catalog No. 70/4223, Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

However, tuki do possess skeuomorphic properties that are clues to their changing significance as they passed from a Japanese to an Ainu context. Japanese crests, called mon, adorned possessions belonging to noble houses (for example, the diamond motifs on the banner in this 1867 image of an Ainu ritual welcoming Matsumae merchants). While some tuki have none, or only single mon, others are decorated with multiple mon from different noble houses. Why would this be? One explanation is that Ainu interest in acquiring highly decorated lacquer may have outweighed the Japanese social meaning of the mon. Linguistic evidence of the importance of shining things and metallic surfaces is preserved in Ainu words such as “treasure,” ikor, literally “shining things,” or “metal,” kane, a word used as a synonym for “magnificent,” and used to describe tuki specifically in Ainu epic poetry (Phillipi [1979] 2015). The shining decorations, that in a Japanese context represented noble ownership, were appreciated for aesthetic reasons once in Ainu hands, which in turn changed the way Japanese artisans applied the mon during production.


Wooden tuki and ikupasuy on display in the Ainu Cultural Center, Sapporo. Photograph by the author, August 2016.

In addition to decoration, the shape of tuki influenced Ainu woodcarvers, who produced their own skeuomorphic versions out of new materials. In one example, a carver created a tuki and stand from wood, which were subsequently lacquered by a Japanese artist. Others, like the one pictured above from the Ainu Cultural Center in Sapporo, are decorated wood without any lacquer but still retain the same vessel form. While the Ainu possessed other styles of cups, tuki specifically were made in the shape of Japanese lacquer cups and stands.

Tuki are an example of an object transformed through cultural context—a decorative cup that became integral to religious practice once in Ainu possession. Viewed over time, the transformation is a physical one as well, as they accumulated decorations that transformed in meaning because of an Ainu, rather than a Japanese, aesthetic. The shape of the lacquer vessels was preserved even as the Ainu produced tuki out of new materials. Tuki as skeuomorphs show how objects simultaneously influence and are influenced by their cultural context, and how their form and material act, as Dan O’Hara said, with a capacity for memory.

Christopher B. Lowman is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on intersections between historical archaeology and museum anthropology, with a focus on immigration, colonialism, and the history of museums.

“He shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”: Examining notions of Gender through the lens of Material Culture

by guest contributor Sarah Bendall

Our everyday lives are surrounded by objects. Some are mundane tools that help us with daily tasks, others are sentimental items that carry emotions and memories, and others again are used to display achievements, wealth and social status. Importantly, many of these objects are gendered and their continued use in various different ways helps to mould and solidify ideas, particularly, gender norms.

In the early modern period two objects of dress that shaped and reinforced gender norms were the busk, a long piece of wood, metal, whalebone or horn that was placed into a channel in the front of the bodies or stays (corsets), and the busk-point, a small piece of ribbon that secured the busk in place. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these accessories to female dress helped to not only shape expressions of love and sexual desire, but also shaped the acceptable gendered boundaries of those expressions.

Busks were practical objects that existed to keep the female posture erect, to emphasize the fullness of the breasts and to keep the stomach flat. These uses were derived from their function in European court dress that complimented elite ideas of femininity; most notably good breeding that was reflected in an upright posture and controlled bodily movement. However, during the seventeenth century, and increasingly over eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lovers not only charged busks and busk-points with erotic connotations but also saw them as tokens of affection. Thus, they became part of the complex social and gendered performance of courtship and marriage.

The sheer number of surviving busks that contain inscriptions associated with love indicate that busk giving during courtship must have been a normal and commonly practised act in early modern England and France. A surviving English wooden busk in the Victoria and Albert Museum contains symbolic engravings, the date of gifting, 1675, and a Biblical reference. On the other side of the busk is an inscription referencing the Biblical Isaac’s love for his wife, which reads: “WONC A QVSHON I WAS ASKED WHICH MAD ME RETVRN THESE ANSVRS THAT ISAAC LOVFED RABEKAH HIS WIFE AND WHY MAY NOT I LOVE FRANSYS”.


‘English wooden Stay Busk, c.1675, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Accession number W.56-1929’

Another inscription on one seventeenth-century French busk exclaims “Until Goodbye, My Fire is Pure, Love is United”. Three engravings correspond with each line: a tear falling onto a barren field, two hearts appearing in that field and finally a house that the couple would share together in marriage with two hearts floating above it.

Inscriptions found on other surviving busks go beyond speaking on behalf of the lover, and actually speak on behalf of busks themselves, giving these inanimate objects voices of their own. Another seventeenth-century French busk, engraved with a man’s portrait declares:

“He enjoys sweet sighs, this lover

Who would very much like to take my place”

This inscription shows the busk’s anthropomorphized awareness of the prized place that it held so close to the female body. John Marston’s The scourge of villanie Three bookes of satyres (1598, p. F6r-v) expressed similar sentiments with the character Saturio wishing himself his lover’s busk so that he “might sweetly lie, and softly luske Betweene her pappes, then must he haue an eye At eyther end, that freely might discry Both hills [breasts] and dales [groin].”

Although the busk’s intimate association with the female body was exploited in both erotic literature and bawdy jokes, the busk itself also took on phallic connotations. The narrator of Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712, p. 12) describes the Baron with an ‘altar’ built by love. On this altar “lay the Sword-knot Sylvia‘s Hands had sown, With Flavia‘s Busk that oft had rapp’d his own …”  Here “His own [busk]” evokes his erection that Flavia’s busk had often brushed against during their love making. Therefore, in the context of gift giving the busk also acted as an extension of the male lover: it was an expression of his male sexual desire in its most powerful and virile form that was then worn privately on the female body. Early modern masculinity was a competitive performance and in a society where social structure and stability centred on the patriarchal household, young men found courtship possibly one of the most important events of their life – one which tested their character and their masculine ability to woo and marry. In this context, the act of giving a busk was a masculine act, which asserted not only a young man’s prowess, but his ability to secure a respectable place in society with a household.

Yet the inscriptions on surviving busks and literary sources that describe them often to do not account for the female experience of courtship and marriage. Although women usually took on the submissive role in gift giving, being the recipient of love tokens such as busks did not render them completely passive. Courtship encouraged female responses as it created a discursive space in which women were free to express themselves. Women could choose to accept or reject a potential suitor’s gift, giving her significant agency in the process of courtship. Within the gift-giving framework choosing to place a masculine sexual token so close to her body also led to a very intimate female gesture. Yet a woman’s desire for a male suitor could also take on much more active expressions as various sources describe women giving men their busk-points. When the character Jane in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1600) discovers that the husband she thought dead is still alive, she abandons her new beau who tells her that “he [her old husband] shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”, alluding to women’s habit of giving busk-points as signs of affection and promise. John Marston’s The Malcontent (1603) describes a similar situation when the Maquerelle warns her ladies “look to your busk-points, if not chastely, yet charily: be sure the door be bolted.” In effect she is warning these girls to keep their doors shut and not give their busk-points away to lovers as keepsakes.

To some, the expression of female sexual desire by such means seems oddly out of place in a society where strict cultural and social practices policed women’s agency. Indeed, discussions of busks and busk-points provoked a rich dialogue concerning femininity and gender in early modern England. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bodies (corsets) elongated the torso, until the part of the bodie that contained the busk reached to the lady’s “Honor” (Randle Holme, The Academy of Armory and Blazon…., p. 94)[1] In other words, the lowest part of the busk which contained the ‘busk-point’ sat over a woman’s sexual organs where chastity determined her honour. The politics involved in female honour and busk-points are expressed in the previously discussed scene from The Malcontent: busk-points functioned as both gifts and sexual tokens and this is highlighted by the Maquerelle’s pleas for the girls to look to them ‘chastely’.

As a result of the intimate position of the busk and busk-point on the female body these objects were frequently discussed in relation to women’s sexuality and their sexual honour. Some moralising commentaries blamed busks for concealing illegitimate pregnancies and causing abortions. Others associated busks with prostitutes, and rendered them a key part of the profession’s contraceptive arsenal. Yet much popular literature and the inscriptions on the busks themselves rarely depict those women who wore them as ‘whores’. Instead these conflicting ideas of the busk and busk-points found in sources from this period in fact mirror the contradictory ideas and fears that early moderns held about women’s sexuality. When used in a sexual context outside of marriage these objects were controversial as they were perceived as aiding unmarried women’s unacceptable forward expressions of sexual desire. However, receiving busks and giving away busk-points in the context of courtship and marriage was an acceptable way for a woman to express her desire precisely because it occurred in a context that society and social norms could regulate, and this desire would eventually be consummated within the acceptable confines of marriage.

Busks and busk-points are just two examples of the ways in which the examination of material culture can help the historian to tap into historical ideas of femininity and masculinity, and the ways in which notions of gender were imbued in, circulated and expressed through the use of objects in everyday life in early modern Europe. Although controversial at times, busk and busk-points were items of clothing that aided widely accepted expressions of male and female sexual desire through the acts of giving, receiving and wearing. Ultimately, discussions of these objects and their varied meanings highlight not only the ways in which sexuality occupied a precarious space in early modern England, but how material culture such as clothing was an essential part of regulating gender norms.
[1] Holme, The Academy of Armory and Blazon, p. 3.

Sarah A. Bendall is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Her dissertation examines the materiality, consumption and discourses generated around stiffened female undergarments – bodies, busks, farthingales and bum rolls – to explore how these items of material culture shaped notions of femininity in England between 1560-1690. A longer article-length version of this blog post has appeared in the Journal of Gender & History and Sarah also maintains her own blog were she writes about the process of historical dress reconstruction.

Forms of Bureaucracy

by editor John Raimo

What sorts of history does bureaucracy yield, and what might histories of bureaucracy itself look like? That the two questions remain distinct yet fall closely together emerged in the course of an excellent recent conference organized by Rosamund Johnston (New York University) and Veronika Pehe (European University Institute). Speakers for From Josef K to Lustration: Bureaucracy in Central Europe sought to move from case studies to broader definitions of bureaucracy or vice-versa even as they reflected upon historiographical and disciplinary challenges specific to the subject. Classical definitions from Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and others proved less a starting point than something to be challenged. A thematic organization of panels brought together a variety of regional and chronological expertise; the final conclusions were less simply heterogeneous than thrillingly suggestive of broader lines of common phenomena and historiographical challenges.

A panel dedicated to bureaucracy and the production of knowledge began the conference. Ana Sekulić (Princeton University) explored how Franciscan monasteries under Ottoman rule quickly mastered the intricacies of the imperial bureaucracy, even as the latter came to almost informally accommodate them with reference to questionable Ahidnâme charters. That is, overlapping competencies on both sides of an imperial divide gave way to something like a formalized détente, as in the case of exceptions made for monastic inheritance under Sharia law. Rachel Schaff (University of Minnesota) spoke on how postwar Czechoslovak bureaucracy created the genre of melodrama to categorize an important body of interwar films. Anachronistic discrepancies naturally followed even as the form of records prevented correction or, in a certain sense, a body of expertise to revise the record. Alina Popescu (University of Bucharest) took as her subject how Romanian censorship collapsed under its own weight both with its own increasing rigor and with widening autonomy from central authorities. Censoring institutions could be broken up and reconstituted as necessary under Nicolae Ceaușescu. In his comments, Jan Surman (Herder Institut Marburg) emphasized how closely archives would hew to the internal narratives of bureaucracy, and what challenges these posed for historians. Throughout the panel, one could trace the problem of how bureaucracies generate competing forms of expertise which in turn challenge the easy functioning of the system.

“Rethinking Images of Bureaucrats and Bureaucracy,” the second panel under Jiřina Šmejkalová (Prague College / Palacký University, Olomouc), moved from inner to outward workings of these offices and officials. Margarita Vaysman (St. Andrews University) looked to the popular author Aleksii Pisemskii who, drawing on his long civil service career, could mediate between his experience and public notions of bureaucracy. His role in forming a public ‘tradition’ of Russian bureaucracy to be criticized has been overlooked even as his sort of rhetoric towards the same came to be adopted across the political spectrum. The tensions between state teachers and the central educational authorities in late imperial Austria furnished the subject for Scott Moore (Eastern Connecticut State University), as the sheer distance between the metropole and country came to reflect operational challenges as much as ideological differences under the same rubrics of liberal progress. Alice Lovejoy (University of Minnesota) discussed the paradoxes linking bureaucratic sponsorship of cinematic avant-gardes. An interwar avant-garde notion of didacticism quickly became institutionalized after WWII in terms of personnel, funding, artistic form, and notions of an audience. At the same time, however, international associations of filmmakers fractured as the Iron Curtain fell across Europe, resulting in new artistic relations and antagonisms to bureaucracy.

Calling Mr. Smith (Stefan and Franciszka Thermerson, dir.; 1943), a wartime documentary on Nazi atrocities produced under the auspices of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in London

As Felix Jeschke (Charles University) noted in his comments to a panel dedicated to bureaucrats and regime change, social upheavals directly affected the inner workings of bureaucracies more often than not. Ilya Afanasyev (University of Birmingham) discussed how a perennial lag between public, theoretical ideals of Bolshevik bureaucracy and its actual operations forced constant revisions to both sides of this equation. Marián Lóži (Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů) explored what he termed ‘regional Stalinist elites,’ the temporary layer of bureaucrats aiding in the transition to communist rule in Czechoslovakia from 1948-1952. Both as representatives as well as functionaries of a new system, these bureaucrats’ role necessarily proved transitory even as they embodied both the positive and negative effects of the new regime upon everyday life. Molly Pucci (Trinity College Dublin) went so far as to question to what degree Stalinism yielded new definitions of bureaucracy as opposed to classical definitions. Looking to biographical studies as much as distancing herself from the paradigms offered by secret police organizations, Pucci suggested that the instrumentalization afforded by the “machine of the party” (the rhetoric and structure of cogs and quotas), the “permanent purge” of personnel turnover, the structural ambiguities and redundancies attending hierarchies and authorities, and the complexity revealed by perpetrator studies resulted in something wholly new. And in an appropriate keynote speech to the first day’s proceedings, Ben Kafka (NYU) illustrated the psychological underpinnings of any individual interaction with bureaucracy, not least the phenomenon of a ‘still face’ both personalizing and depersonalizing the very lowest levels of contact.

Joanna Curtis (NYU), Mirjam Frank (Royal Holloway), and Tereza Willoughby (Hradec Králové) began the second day’s proceedings with a panel chaired by David Vaughan (Anglo-American University in Prague) on the subject of cultural bureaucracies. Looking to the postwar career of the Wiener Sängerknaben, Curtis showed how two myths of bureaucracy—the idea that it expresses rational impulses and that it fundamentally embodies irrationality—faltered in this instance of an institution falling between a humanistic embrace of music, fears of cultural imperialism at home and abroad, and a shambolic interior structure under strict state control. Frank continued the discussion of Austrian culture by moving to the interwar period and discussing how bureaucracies realizedvarious conceptual changes leading to the Ständestaat period. The cosmopolitanism of the Habsburg Empire was made to yield an ‘Austrian’ identity premised on the interior culture of the reduced nation in the fairs at the Prater; the genesis of a tourist industry in the Weiner Festwochen elided a movement from Volk to a public; and the Ständestaat eventually held ‘culture’ as a shield against geopolitics. Willoughby demonstrated something similar in terms of bureaucratic manipulation of popular culture, namely how an official and unofficial rhetoric of ranking artists survived in the Czech Republic after the transition from communist rule—even if the terms changed. In this sense, as Willoughby showed, bureaucratic inner workings of television simultaneously preserved not only a similar editorial structure but also an only slightly-modified notion of audience numbers guiding the programming choices.

Personnel and agents emerged as a running theme throughout the panels, appropriately leading to the “Bureaucracy Personified” panel chaired by Veronika Pehe. Mátyás Erdélyi (Central European University) looked to the life and career of Josef Körösy (1844-1906), the director of the Budapest Statistical office. Körösy’s work there over several decades demonstrates how the international networks girding national offices, professional training in medicine and law, and sheer problems of scale could open gaps and debates between different, supposedly parallel bureaucracies. Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh (European University Institute / Sciences Po) similarly focused upon Jacek Kuroń (1934-2004) and how the “immanent critique” of bureaucracy in his 1964 “Open Letter to the Party” and Polish reform communism helped yield the Polish dissident movement across generations. And in a tour-de-force of close-reading of police files, Muriel Blaive (Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů) showed how the tones, arguments, and vocabulary of the secret police in Communist Czechoslovakia allowed for pockets of agency on both sides of the state divide, with the basis of participation changing between generations of families, jealous wives, and lazy police officers caught in the midst of official forms and habitus-change.

A final panel on gaps in bureaucracy perfectly closed the conference. With Kafka chairing, Cristian Capotescu (University of Michigan) opened by suggesting that “bureaucratic blindspots” both followed from and further developed bureaucratic procedures, indeed startlingly so in the case of cross-border charitable ‘giving’ practices on the edges of communist Romania. In a lighter talk discussing his own experiences applying for a “Certificate of Slovak Living Abroad,” Charles Sabatos (Yeditepe University) showed the relative complexities of the term ‘národnost’ or nationality as they emerge in the retrospective projection of the term backwards in Slovakian bureaucracy today. Whether politicized or not in the wake of 1989, bureaucracies did not necessarily become simpler or uniform with the advent of the European Union, and Sabatos’ case suggests that indeed inefficiencies might be the true purpose of many offices. And finally, conference organizer Rosamund Johnston (NYU) presented her ongoing research into the history of Czech Radio. Moving between the extant archives and the period practices—technological, material, and human—of radio production, Johnston documented how Czech Radio produced its own idiosyncratic variations of bureaucracy filled with lacunae, parallel hierarchies, specific forms of record-keeping, and traces of history. Layers of bureaucracy both occluded and preserved characteristic gaps calling for further reconstruction. Her case studies suggested how much further historiography can and should go in order to ‘fill in’ these holes.

Excerpts from Postava k podpírání (Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, dir.; 1963)

The conference ended on an artistic note. Pavel Juráček’s film Joseph Kilian (Postava k podpírání; 1963) was shown before a guided tour of linked art installations by students from the Center for Audio Visual Studies (CAS) at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU). Juráček’s script is darkly comical, dedicated to the travails of a man trying to return a rented cat (…) to avoid late fees when the business wholly disappears. A sort of collective solidarity gradually emerges in the face of grinding state and official absurdity; an almost gentle sense of sympathy emerges among the menace. The work of the CAS and FAMU students under Eric Rosenzveig’s guidance followed in much the same vein. The very impersonality of bureaucracy could be seen to allow certain forms of disinterested critique— humorous and edged with a greater sense of historical distance. What both the film and the artworks allowed viewers to understand is how tightly the personal experience of bureaucracy remains tied to particular aesthetic forms, images, and genres; this heritage of paperwork and incomprehension naturally survives until today.


Listening in to art by FAMU and CAS students (courtesy of Rosamund Johnston)

It reflects no small credit to the conference organizers that the proceedings both proved interesting and exploratory. Participants’ willingness to conceive of bureaucracy in terms other than those of Weber’s classical definitions—not to mention period or retrospective notions of secret police workings—opened up further avenues of research in terms both of a longue durée across eastern and central European history and of cultural exchanges and differences between east and west. The slow churn of paperwork may exhibit an unchanging face at first glance, but each case study of glacial bureaucratic rigor mortis yields considerable evidence of change behind the scenes.

The larger question hovering over the conference might be more bluntly termed. Did a particularly eastern and, later, a particularly Soviet form of bureaucracy emerge apart from any larger ideas about modernity? Here a tendency of many speakers to focus upon the Stalinist and postwar era suggested immediate problems of continuity. Did different degrees of internationalization (carried out from before and after WWII) characterize Austria and countries further to the east? That is, did competing models of bureaucracy and management exist—Soviet, American, Ottoman, Prussian, Habsburg, and so forth? And what might be said about the direction of causality between technology and organization? Despite what one might expect to find interesting, here a closer attention to the nitty-gritty, ground-level office forms, official rhetoric, and specific archival gaps proved most promising in terms of challenging old definitions and making clear the need for interdisciplinary research. Sociology, anthropology, media studies, cybernetics, historical epistemology, art history, architecture, law, and psychology to name but a few fields would all find work to do alongside more strictly historical research. One might be forgiven for presuming all this to be terribly boring. Yet seeing how the boring, frustrating, labyrinthine, and commonplace were specific, timely constructions—how they mediated social relations as much as experiences people had when encountering different state powers—draws back a curtain on the innermost workings of history.

From Josef K to Lustration: Bureaucracy in Central Europe (23-24 February 2017) was supported by NYU Prague, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, NYU Global Research Initiatives, and NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. The author thanks the conference organizers for the invitation to attend and report on the proceedings.

Dressing Up in Late Antique Egypt: A Review of ISAW’s ‘Designing Identity’

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

One of the joys of being in New York is the relative plethora of late-antique objects scattered throughout the city. The Met does not exactly have a late antique room, but, in a corridor gallery alongside a staircase, you can make your way around the Mediterranean from a Roman case to a Byzantine case and across many cases of various Germanic groups (Visigothic, Frankish, or Avar, to name a few). The pieces of Germanic metalwork collected by J.P. Morgan that did not make their way to the Met share a room with cuneiform tablets and seals at the Morgan Library, also home to some famous late antique manuscripts. Recently, the Cloisters hosted a number of late Roman and Germanic rings that were part of the Griffin Collection, some of which are still on display. The numerous university libraries serve as another source of material: in a couple of weeks, my students will visit a handful of late antique papyri in Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

To these treasuries, we can now add the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World—at least, until May 22. The exhibition Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity includes more than fifty textile objects (and a handful of non-textile items), almost all of which were probably associated with Egypt between about the third and seventh centuries CE. Curator Thelma K. Thomas assembled a diverse collection of stunning items on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Dumbarton Oaks, the Brooklyn Museum, the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Met, among other institutions. The result is a delightful and refreshingly current exhibition that teaches its viewer what to make of an unfamiliar and occasionally opaque corpus of material.

Designing Identity conceives of identity principally as a set of choices about personal and household adornment that yield a display. The various objects demonstrate how a wealthy, mostly eastern Roman elite could thus express “ideals of self, household, and society through materials, techniques, and the types and decorations of garments and furnishings.” The first gallery shows how this might work through a case study of different uses of specifically Dionysian motifs in different household items. A second room demonstrates a large chunk of the range of possibilities for expression, often within categories like Christian or pagan, abstract or figurative, starkly minimalist or boldly colored.

'Designing Identity' has a lot of delightful twists. Take this hanging (fifth century, possibly from Egypt, now belonging to the MFA) with a servant dressed in a tunic who is pulling back a curtain in a stone arcade. How often do premodernists get to see cloth depicted in cloth, let alone alongside stone and flesh and in such vivid polychromy? Elsewhere in the same gallery, there are three complete tunics: one for an adult, one for a child, and one for a doll.

‘Designing Identity’ has a lot of delightful twists. Take this hanging (fifth century, possibly from Egypt, now belonging to the MFA) with a servant dressed in a tunic who is pulling back a curtain in a stone arcade. How often do premodernists get to see cloth depicted in cloth, let alone alongside stone and flesh and in such vivid polychromy? Elsewhere in the same gallery, there are three complete tunics: one for an adult, one for a child, and one for a doll.

Textiles emerge as an extremely effective source for talking about elite identity. They were widely traded, and so a wide range of choices were likely to have been available to eastern Roman elites. Textiles were also valued highly—by weight, silk cost more than ivory or silver. Finally, it’s so easy, given their relative rarity now, to forget how ubiquitous textiles were in the late-antique world. The category “textile” includes clothes, other kinds of personal adornment, wall hangings, and furniture coverings, to name a few of the types of object on display. Textiles also reflect a version of identity that is firmly grounded in materiality. The exhibition explains how linen and dyed wool were paired to create dramatic contrasts of dark and light, how thicker threads of linen were used to weight down the bottom of tunics so they would drape properly, and how threads of different thicknesses could be fused to generate sculptural effects. Identity here is not abstract philosophizing, but the product of resources, labor, and expertise.

The exhibition asks a lot of the visitor. The panels themselves do some serious heavy lifting: whether it be narrating late antiquity as something other than the fall of Rome, explaining the techniques used to produce textiles, providing an overview of the different associations that Dionysus could have, and teasing out the complicated geometry and cosmology behind some of the more abstract patterns. It is often left to the viewer to combine all of this information to determine how any individual object might display identity. Smaller acts of historical imagination are explicitly encouraged along the way, however—perhaps as a way of encouraging the viewer to practice. For example, the exhibition often describes how a textile might be draped over a piece of furniture in situ, and asks the viewer to imagine a room coated in hangings and also awash in portable objects of silver and ivory.

Identity in the late antique world is a big, hairy topic of scholarly research. In fairly basic strokes, there are the persistent questions of antiquity about what it meant to be Roman, made even more obscure in late antiquity by the fracturing of the empire into western and eastern portions. What were the elements of Romanitas and Hellenism? Turning to the Germanic groups, to what extent is it helpful to think of the distinctions among them as ethnic distinctions? Scholars have done a lot of work to break down the idea of a culture package in which language, material culture, and personal characteristics must all go together, but how do these elements relate to one another, and what constrains the range of possible expressions that an individual can make with, say, a tunic?

Designing Identity does not set out to raise all of these questions, most of which emerge concretely only when zooming out beyond Egypt to the late antique world more broadly. (The move need not have been quite so big—late antique textiles, and Egyptian textiles in particular, traveled widely; and could be used, for example, to wrap relics in Merovingian Gaul.) The exhibition does, however, provide a set of tools for thinking in specific ways about how identity functioned in the context of late antique Egypt: identity emerged out of a set of choices intended to convey social standing, function, and belief to a viewer through objects.

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.