Objects versus Subjects

  • Jack Lohman (Author)
    Museums at the Crossroads? Essays on Cultural Institutions in a Time of Change. Royal British Columbia Museum (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Thomas Allen (Editor) and Jennifer Blair (Editor)
    Material Cultures in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alicia Fahey

Material Cultures in Canada is a diverse collection of essays that traverse the fields of literature, art, politics, culture, the environment, affect, and globalization. These (seemingly) disparate interests find common ground under the umbrella of new materialism, a framework that is as wide-ranging as the essays in this collection. In fact, problems of definition are a primary preoccupation of the editors’ introduction: is materialism a field or approach? Is it a method of analysis or object of analysis? In each of the essays, fruitful paradoxes and contradictions abound as the authors wrestle with a profusion of recurring binaries, including: subject and object, individual and collective, human and non-human, identity and autonomy, science and humanities, private and public. The Canadian focus is equally complex: Jody Berland’s contextualization of the beaver beyond its restrictive status as national icon and Alison Calder’s reading of Mary Maxim sweaters as objects that “participate in and create a nationalist rhetoric that both celebrates and effaces its appropriation of Aboriginal and ethnic cultural markers,” are both explicit in their nationalist orientation, whereas Michael Epp’s and Mark Simpson’s essays are initiated by American objects and culture, even though both authors connect their objects to Canadian contexts. Shelley Boyd’s exposition of the imperial history of geraniums is another transnational example of the multiple border-crossings operating in this text.

Despite the fact that these essays deliberately and explicitly participate in resisting definition and the insularity of disciplinary constraints, editors Thomas Allen and Jennifer Blair still try to impose some semblance of order on the collection. Their history of major developments in material studies, which identifies Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things (1986) and Bill Brown’s special issue of Critical Inquiry (2001) as crucial junctures in the field, is a helpful narrative for newcomers to material studies and also facilitates connections among the chapters. Indeed, Appadurai and Brown dominate the critical frameworks of many of the essays, with supporting roles played by Bruno Latour, Susan Stewart, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, W. J. T. Mitchell, and Henri Lefebvre.

The sixteen essays in the collection are divided into three sections: “Materialities” features beavers, Anne Carson’s Nox, sweaters, geraniums, and a belt; “Immaterialities” consists of a playlist, smiles, calendars, ice, and water; and “Materials of and for Spaces” contains comics, sculptural miniatures, historic plaques, waxen objects, and urban poetry. Each essay is as delightfully unpredictable and unique as the objects they consider. Unfortunately, the organization of the essays into these vague categories (even the editors identify them as “arbitrary”) undermines their heterogeneity. Even if the categories were imposed to emphasize these contradictions, a more appropriate way to represent the “oscillating field” of new materialism would be to abandon these restrictions altogether. Many—if not all—of the chapters vacillate between the arbitrary categories. Tanis MacDonald’s discussion of mourning intersects with Epp’s reading of smiles as emotional labour in section II, as well as Jessa Alston-O’Connor’s exploration of memory and nostalgia in Section III. Likewise, the author’s shared interest in textuality in Section III connects with chapters by Susan Birkwell, MacDonald, and Epp in other sections. Perhaps one could argue there is something about the materiality of the book-as-object that demands these linear categorizations, even if they are somewhat cumbersome.

Whereas Material Cultures in Canada gives precedence to objects, Museums at the Crossroads? champions the subject. Lohman’s book consists of a short preface in which he makes clear his agenda to undermine the hegemony of “things” that dominates traditional museum practices. In other words, the objective is to focus on how “museum objects represent points of contact with the groups of people who made or encountered them.” Lohman elaborates on this agenda in the twenty-seven papers (ranging from four to twelve pages in length) that follow the preface, each beginning with a brief description of the context in which the paper was originally delivered. Composed as oral presentations, the essays in this compilation collectively adopt an accessible, anecdotal voice that is inspirational and, at times, bordering on idealistic. And yet, the international scope and contextual breadth of the papers testify to Lohman’s impressive career history, including his roles as chairman of the National Museum in Warsaw, director of the Museum of London, chief executive officer of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, and his current positions as chief executive officer of the Royal BC Museum and professor in museum design at the Bergen National Academy of Arts in Norway. Lohman’s idealism is sustained by his professional experience and by the multitude of concrete examples he provides for implementing change in museum practices.

Museums at the Crossroads? is organized thematically and each paper draws on recurring themes such as architecture, archives and oral histories, museum-as-story, collaboration, digitization and technology, and globalization. Despite ample gestures to multi-media and multi-disciplinary approaches—archives, art, music, dance, literature (several Can-lit references), newspapers, photography, and film—the thematic imperative becomes somewhat repetitive. Repetition, in this case, is not redundant; instead, it emphasizes Lohman’s passion, his dedication, and—most importantly—his message, which is to move towards “intangible culture” as opposed to artifacts, subjects instead of objects, in order to establish a “living connection” with the past. For Lohman, the museum is a humanist enterprise.

One of the most insightful observations made in this book (there are many) lies in Lohman’s commentary on research. He argues that, “we are [possibly] not rigorous enough in museums and archives about setting new research agendas. We react to collections rather than create them.” Underlying all of Lohman’s papers is an anxiety regarding the decline of the museum, but if Museums at the Crossroads? is read as a how-to manual or field guide for museum directors, then the future looks promising.


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