We Need to Talk about Things

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Doctoral student, Bridget Millmore, reviews a recent Cambridge conference and its innovative approach to material culture and technology. 

Sometimes when you’re writing there’s a moment that you reach when your inner dialogue begins to question everything that you compose.  That’s when it’s time to step away.  For me that involved going to a conference. Material Culture as a subject area and the ‘material turn’ in history is definitely in academic vogue.  At the end of September 2012, I attended a colloquium at Cambridge University with the title ‘We Need to Talk about Things’.  It was the concluding event to a programme of seminar talks that focussed on the material culture of the eighteenth century –a fitting series for my own PhD on the material culture of eighteenth century love tokens.  At last, I had found the seminar group that studied the same stuff as me – but only as the series came to an end!

The keynote speech was given by Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, whose only visual  image for her presentation was one familiar to me – the tokens left for babies at the Foundling Hospital, London, established in 1741.  She spoke about the tactility of objects,  the conversations that are shaped through the display of objects, the words we use to describe the work that things do and the fact that we care about things because they are impregnated with meanings.  Discussing the tokens left for babies by their mothers at the Foundling Hospital, Jordanova drew attention to the degrees of ambivalence attached to these objects, which ‘stand in’ for complex situations and emotions.

The great thing that I discovered when I got home was that I could listen to all the sessions that I had missed.  They were all available as podcasts and they featured speakers and participants that I am familiar with through my studies – including John Styles, Nicholas Thomas and Maxine Berg.  For example, the seminar on fashion featured John Styles talking about the production and consumption of cotton, while the session on money included Catherine Eagleton from the British Museum (who I met when I researched the museum’s collection of love tokens and with whom I have subsequently been in correspondence).

What is particularly interesting about all the ‘things’ sessions is how they cross disciplines.  So, in the same talk, the speaker can be referring to musical and scientific instruments and the history of science but can then discuss the textiles on which they are represented – Chinese silk tapestries.  Similarly, the eighteenth century warship was introduced as an object in itself, but then discussed as a system of objects, a representation of empire and a self-contained community.

So I am now converted to podcasts – not only for those things you miss at an event but also for the times you wished that a speaker could repeat a point.  You can listen again to those bits that don’t make sense the first time you hear them.  If you are interested in anything connected to material culture and eighteenth century then why not take a look and listen:


A late 18th/early 19th century sailor’s love token engraved on a shilling, collection of Bridget Millmore

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