10 May 2011

Review: MEG Conference 2011 “Objects and Words”

By Jenny Walklate
School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

It is hard to believe that it has been a year since The Museum of Rural Life welcomed MEG to Reading, and that this time last year I was a first time conference presenter and new PhD student still trying to find my feet. Having found the whole experience initially terrifying, but ultimately immensely enjoyable and fulfilling, I was excited to have the opportunity to attend once more, but wondered what difference a year would have made, in the world of MEG as well as my own. Would this conference, held at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, prove that MEG could weather the storms and vicissitudes of contemporary life, and build upon the conferences that have come before? I certainly hoped so.

There was no need to worry. The organization of proceedings was second to none, for which we must thank Alison Petch, Jeremy Coote, and the various session chairs. The catering from Morton's was wonderful, if rather ironically mislabelled, and the staff at the Museum were highly accommodating. The Pitt Rivers, a microcosm of museal history which is itself filled with worlds, is highly individualistic and innovative in its outlook and approach to museological activity. Thus it provided the perfect setting for this group of diverse individuals to come together to discuss words, things and ideas, surrounded by the dreaming spires of a place already host to almost infinite possibilities. The first MEG conference of 1975 was held here, and organised largely by the much missed Peter Gathercole, whose death in the last year gives the location of the conference a singularly bittersweet appropriateness.

But MEG is an organization able to mourn the loss of a part of its history, whilst still retaining a faith in its future. Though it has seen other traumas, including the hacking of its website, and faces, along with other cultural institutions, future financial uncertainty, this conference proves that the organization has the capacity to weather such storms. It seems hopeful, then, that the conference saw the launch of the organization's new identity and web presence. Conference packs, banners, and publicity materials, designed by Z3, will allow MEG to retain a sense of professional selfhood which will see it in good stead for the future. Plus, it's pretty. The website, for which we must thank Chris Wingfield and Dan Burt will encourage the online community surrounding MEG to grow, and for new participants to develop their voices. I hope to see the Facebook statistics increase even more rapidly than they did in the two days we were there. At the time of writing, it has been 'liked' 80 times, and I think you'll agree that that's not bad.

Moving on from technological and artistic wizardry, it's time to focus on the academic business of the conference itself. Day one was filled with language, 'Old,' 'Collectors',' and 'Curators'' Words providing the three session groupings for a highly stimulating set of discussions. Sally Ayres showed how we should use multiple sources from which to glean our words, that these were often translations of the words of others, and that from these words we can gain information not only regarding objects but of those writing about them. In the presentation of stunningly beautiful South African rock paintings, Patricia Davidson highlighted the limitations of labelling, and interpretation, particularly with objects which are so enigmatic and ambiguous. This ambiguity was picked up in the mistaken identities and false inscriptions of the Australian Toas so enjoyably articulated by Philip Jones. Philip's paper formed a perfect segue into the second session 'Collector's Words,' for Katjia Muller also proved that errors, accidental and deliberate, have a significant impact upon how the collection items, and collectors themselves, are understood, and that we have to use multiple sources if we are to gain as full an image of a collection as possible. As Ann French's discussion of the collection of Greek embroidery by Dawkins and Wace indicated, the influences which build collections also build the words written around them, and the institutional treatment of historic words complicates this situation further. Furthermore, as Ana Rita Amaral's pot lids and Vibha Joshi's cloths showed, objects can act as 'words,' if this term is understood as meaning 'tools for communication.' At this point I began to wonder what this conference was about, for the very notion of what a word is was becoming obscure and problematic.

Katy Barrat's numismatic paper in 'Curator's Words' highlighted this difficulty once more, but also showed how personality and institutional change can be evidenced in the written record. This action of the institution, according to Chris Wingfield, is a tool of the carceral archipelago, creating a written cage of interpretation for imprisoned objects. Potentially, then, the day might have ended with a negative view of the power of words, but fortunately a brighter end came with Ken Teague, who showed us how the stories which words and objects create together, are magical. He regaled us with the puppeteer's story 'Alexander Has Horns,' highlighting the reiteration of objects, concepts, ideas and dreams across cultures and across time, so significantly apparent in the relation of stories. I, for one, know of a similar Welsh tale, 'King March Has Asses Ears.' Cross cultural translation, transition, and communication, then, were the perfect notes with which to end the first day, in a museum so filled with linkages and networks.

Wondering round the Pitt Rivers during the day is a magical enough experience, but during the reception on the first evening, the knowledge that outside dusk was giving way to night added another, ethereal quality to a space already home to shadows and ghosts. For those of us who didn't, sadly, attend the conference dinner at Quod, the reception provided the perfect time to reflect, to integrate, and to talk, and it sent me home in the perfect frame of mind to pontificate about my own paper.

The next day proved to be a packed one, for not only was the AGM filled with events – the launch of the website and new brand, and the retirement and election of the MEG chair, the JSTOR archive and SSN funding updates – but the presentations of the day were also intense and deep, incorporating 'Works in Progress and Short Reports,' and 'New Words.' In the 'Short Reports,' the 'Stories of the World' projects presented by Tabitha Cadbury and Helen Mears, echoed yesterday’s final paper, showing cross cultural linkages and communications, and encouraging the development of new thoughts and inscriptions surrounding objects and collections. The relationship of objects and words remained, though, a murky one, for Tsai Tsan-Huang noted that objects can be used to retell, and recreate histories and thus augment the written record. Tabitha also highlighted that words have not just a conceptual power, but in the case of spells and activation instructions, can be seen as objects of power in their own right. This notion of power was also picked up in Chiari De Cesari's presentation, in which the need to move beyond official narratives and investigate the words and objects of forgotten, less written, and less positive histories came to the fore. But these institutions of power can also be understood through the words which are written by them, as Caroline Cornish's paper on the Kew Totem Pole indicated. These words can also be used to develop new linkages, and new educational possibilities, such as in the Effective Collections Project in the Eastern Counties in which Len Pole is involved.

Finishing with 'New Words' seems appropriate, although my need to rush off created a certain level of anxiety around presenting a paper this late in the day, and regret that I was unable to stay and discuss it more. I certainly enjoyed the discussions which I did manage to become involved in. The session as a whole was most enjoyable and highly stimulating. Elizabeth Crooke illuminated the social and political contexts which surround objects and words in a highly moving paper regarding the display of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, questioning how museums do and should relate trauma, which and whose words they should use. The notion of who was speaking and how that speech is performed was once more highlighted by Alana Jelinek, in a paper which encouraged the use of art to correct mistaken assumptions about objects and to show the museum as the interpretable and polyvocal space it is. In this session again, then, the object-word relationship was complicated, with Alana’s use of objects, media, and the concepts and spaces between as words. Finishing off the papers, Francois Lauwaert used Chinese calligraphy and brush painting to remind us all that words themselves can be objects, and that their display, particularly when left untranslated, is also intensely problematic.

But these problems, I think, present opportunities as much as they do challenges. I believe that we should go forward with a positive attitude towards the difficulties and joys illustrated by this conference’s deconstruction of existing notions regarding the nature and relationships of words, objects and artefacts. Though I was not present for the final discussion, I have no doubt that it generated such a sense of positivity, of future possibility. These two days showed how complicated these things we call words are, and how vital they and their interpretation remains, even, if not especially, in a world predicated upon things. I would like to leave you with an open field of exploration, not a definitive ending. For words mutate, change their forms and accrue palimpsestual layers of meaning. This conference has invited all those who attended, and who may experience its fall out, to enjoy the potential of a diverse multiverse of words and things. These are my own words, and I do hope you have others to add.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for a fine overview for those of us who could not be there this year. The discussion about objects, texts and meanings reminds me of an earlier conference on this subject titled "Inscriptions in the Material World" held at Northwestern University in 1993/4. The papers published in Passages can be accessed at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=passages;idno=4761530.0007.0* with an introduction by Karin Barber. Though most of the papers are not specifically museum related outside of my own on the invention of Shona sculpture through the inscription process, the general issues remain relevant. Thanks again. JZ.