History, Archeology, and Interpreting
I’ve been offering my sense of the changing world of reproduction furniture making for a few years now. I won’t repeat it here accept to say yesterday’s reproductions probably won’t be viewed as accurate by scholars (and thus museum visitors, and thus furniture customers) in the future. The reason is that our understanding of period furniture is continuing to grow and change.
Just some quick definitions before I continue. (Please correct me if I get this wrong.) History is the study of the past through documentary evidence. Anthropology is the study of the past through oral tradition and contemporary human behavior. Archeology is the study of the past through found artifacts (like furniture? Does that make us archeologists in a way? I think so).
So if our understanding of furniture is changing, is archeology changing? You bet. Less than a hundred years ago, a pre-eminent archeologist drove his motorcade into the desert with his native porters, interpreters, and diggers. Their goal? Find the treasure and claim it for the British Museum. Howard Carter, the archeologist who found King Tut’s tomb, the archeologist on whom Indiana Jones was patterned, didn’t set up string lines and wasn’t interested in midden pile analysis. Archeology has come a long long way.
For the most part, archeologists don’t generally intersect our sphere. Unless you read Archeology magazine, or National Geographic, you may not know the name of a single archeologist. But one name you should know is Dr. James Deetz. Deetz’ excellent little book, “In Small things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American Life” provides us with a deeper understanding of the people who made the things we reproduce. It offers explanations of iconographic motifs we may encounter in our work. I think it’s a must read.
In addition to being a fine archeologist, Deetz was also the Assistant Director of Plimoth Planation 1967-1978 where he:
“transformed Plimoth Plantation from a mannequin-furnished commemoration of the Mayflower passengers to a vibrant living history museum replete with accurately-costumed character interpreters engaged in the nitty-gritty of daily life.”
(from Marley Brown, linked above)
Personally, I don’t care for first person interpreting. Exposition, communicating the basic who, what, when, where, and how, can be particularly challenging for both interpreter and visitor alike. Viewed in this light, it seems a step backward, making the topic more difficult to understand instead of less so. But for Deetz, who was at least in part if not wholly responsible for the first person interpretation at Plimoth, the goal was to communicate more than the basic text book facts. He wanted us to get to know the people of Plimoth intimately.
Like many other pursuits, the bar of basic competency is rising for interpreters, and reproduction furniture makers alike. This is the way of things. I think it’s okay to let the bar drift over our heads and continue on as we have. Many of us have started so far under the bar that it’s difficult to see from where we now stand. What I don’t think is okay is denying the existence of the bar. I think a quick read through Deetz’ book, preferably followed by a visit to Plimoth will be all the proof you need.
P.S. I guess I should add that I see the exposition as similar to the dimensions of a piece of furniture. You can get those right and still miss the mark (as many have). My story about Deetz intends to relate the intimate understanding of past cultures to the intimate understanding of objects like furniture. This is in part what “Material Culture” is all about. Grad students taking part in Winterthur’s Masters program in American Material Culture are learning about furniture and expressing values that were unknown to the Carter/Nutting collectors.