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Museum Objects as Evidence – Summer School in Amsterdam

On the 9–20 June I attended the summer school Museum Objects as Evidence: Approaches to the Material World in Amsterdam. The summer school was arranged by the Rijksmuseum, University of Amsterdam and the Bard Graduate Center.

My initial motivation for applying the program was to become more familiar with the methods in analyzing historic objects, and get inspiration on how to include and work with cultural heritage objects in my own PhD dissertation. Next year I am going to look more into the archaeological and material evidence of the dress of the lower levels of Denmark. I felt that I needed tools to approach this topic as a historian, since we are generally not used to work with objects in the material sense.

During the two weeks I got strong insight on how to use cultural heritage objects as sources of information. Some of the overall topics that were considered were damage or decay, object as evidence, reading the object, issues of authenticity,meaning through display, reimagining the object, the biography of objects, interdisciplinary research, and how we think of objects in the future.

Every day we were presented with a new topic and specialists showing us their work with groups of objects from the Rijksmuseum collections, ranging from Delft pottery to fine art paintings, and photography to colonial artefacts, metal wares and textiles.

Some of the sessions I found particular interesting, such as a session about metal objects and metal thread. Here we were presented to some of the treasures from a Dutch shipwreck, including items such as a powder box and a toiletry set containing many items, for example a mirror covered in velvet, and metal threads.

Some of the metal items from the shipwreck. The mirror from the toiletry set can be seen in the background. Photo credit: Anne-Kristine Sindvald Larsen.

In another session that I was very intrigued by, we were presented a highly decorative table ornament, which was decorated with small life casts of small fauna and flora. In effort to understand how the object was made, and to comprehend the highly complicated processes that artisans were able to perform almost 500 years ago, conservators had used contemporary recipe books to help them gain knowledge of the process of making life casts.

Wenzel Jamnitzer, tablestand (1549). Photo credit: Riijksmuseum.

Details of life casts of snakes and lizards. Photo credit: Riijksmuseum.

 

 

I was also very lucky to try out some technical examination methods on a piece of Renaissance jewelry. By using different technical approaches, we were able to determine the color pigments in the enamel, the quality of gemstones and pearls, and possible alterations and repairs. This made us understand the history of the object and what it had gone through in detail, and also led to quite a surprise. Turned out that the piece of jewelry that at first seemed to be an authentic renaissance object, had a frame added to it in a later period. This shows how important it is to take a deep and critical look into the history of the object, and interpret all the traces the object has to reveal about itself.

A Renaissance pendant is being examined. Photo credit: Thijs Gerbrandy.

The worksheet from the piece that were examined at the workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even more interesting, we also had a session on textiles, where 17-century bridal gloves were laid out for examination and where we were able to really see the cut and construction of the gloves, and get a closeup of the elaborate decoration, materials, and stitching.

A pair of bridal gloves that we were lucky to get a closer look at. Photo credit: Rijjksmuseum.

Every afternoon the day ended with a discussion where two students were in charge of presenting the main points of the day and their thoughts about the topic in general and in relation to their own project. This led to some very interesting discussion and inspiring thoughts.

What I also learned during these two weeks, is how important interdisciplinary views  and approaches are when working with objects. Besides the strong academic focus during the summer school, I got a chance to network and meet other researchers and museum professionals all interested in working and engaging with material culture in different ways.

Group photograph in the Rijksmuseum garden. Photocredit: Thijs Gerbrandy.

Before attending the summer school, one thing that I was especially interested in was to get an idea of how to cope with anonymous objects without any context or known provenance, since this is mostly the case with the archeological remains that are left of ordinary people’s dress in Denmark.

After these two weeks I feel more confident in working and incorporating objects in my own work, I have a stronger sense of what questions are relevant to ask, and know that even simple results can lead to a greater understanding of the objects and thereby the society it was made in. I also know more about the possibilities in terms of methods and approaches, and more importantly I have gotten a sense of how objects can transform our understanding of the past, but also how our understanding of objects keeps changing though time.

I look forward to using this knowledge in practice in the future.
 

An Example of 16th Century Artisan Self-Fashioning – Master Shoemaker Jens Pedersen from Odense 

Shoemaker Jens Pedersen, 1583. Photo credit: Odense Bys Museer

In the process of gathering source material for my PhD research I came across a beautiful and decorative glass window in the shoe makers guild house in Odense, dating from 1583. Jens Pedersen had commissioned and donated the stained-glass window, picturing himself with his wife and two other shoemakers, probably a journeyman and an apprentice.

I was immediately caught by the details in the illustrations, and how the stained glass gives insight into the workshop of a shoemaker. Then I became intrigued by the variety of fashions and styles of garments that Jens Pedersen and his wife are wearing. They are each portrayed with three different outfits, showing off many kinds of decorative and colourful fashions and styles. The glass window shows different styles of hats and caps, and the construction of the clothes is also quite clear.   

A work scene from Jens Pedersen’s workshop is depicted in the middle of the frame. He as the master artisan, is sitting at a table wearing a black doublet and hose with some kind of linings, together with black stockings. On his head, he is wearing a black hat. The two working men are wearing white, probably linen shirts, black hoses and yellow stockings. They are all wearing ruffs around their necks. The workshop scene shows how the master artisan is cutting leather, and the journeyman and apprentice are sewing leather shoes together. The depiction not only gives insight into the working environment of the artisans, but also reveals a social hierarchy through the clothes worn by the master artisan and his workers. Were these the actual clothes shoemakers wore, when they were working in the workshop? And does this paint a realistic picture of an early modern artisan workshop?

Jens Pedersen must have had an agenda and an interest in showing himself off in the best possible way, and he is clearly aware that fashion can be a tool for promoting his own role as a prominent master shoemaker and burgher in the city of Odense. Especially the depictions outside the workshop signal honour and respect, and he is clearly using fashion as a tool for making himself stand out, and to shape his identity as a prominent and important burgher. His way of establishing himself as an important burgher can also be seen in the way he is using symbols, his wife with a wine jug and himself with a spear symbolling his participation in the city defence work.

His donation to the guild house shows that he proudly associates himself with the tradition of shoe making and of the guild. But at the same time, he distances himself from the coarser work of making shoes through his dress. Perhaps he also thought that the public placing of the window in the guild house could help shape an understanding of shoemakers as being fashionable, and in this way getting more patronage and additional commissions. No matter what, this is an excellent example of artisan self-fashioning, and I look forward seeing if there are similar examples out there.

 
Litterature:

Andersen, Vivi Lena: Between Cobbles, Bunion, Shoelast and Fashion. Shoes from 1300-1800 from Archaeological Excavations in Copenhagen, phd-dissertation submitted for University of Copenhagen, 2016.

Troels-Lund, Troels: Dagligt Liv i Norden: i det Sekstende Aarhundrede. vol 2. Gyldendalske Boghandel: Copenhagen, 1914.

Sumptuary Laws in Denmark: Om Drecht och Klædebon, 1558

In researching fashion and textiles in the artisan groups of Scandinavia, sumptuary laws are both important and interesting in terms of looking into what kinds of restrictions the king and the nobility found necessary to implement in society to maintain the social hierarchical order. Dress and fashion were ways people could signal their place in the social hierarchy, and the need to implement sumptuary laws, one might argue, was a response to a perceived threat from the masses of society.

In working with fashion among the lower groups of society, these laws are excellent in getting a glimpse into the social hierarchy of the Danish renaissance period, and especially how the society elite perceived the lower groups of society. Many sumptuary laws were issued in Denmark in the period of 1550-1650, but to what extent the over excessive consumption was an actual problem in the population, we do not know.

Christian III of Denmark, from the Bible of Christian III, 1550.

In considering the laws, I am especially interested in what kinds of restrictions were laid upon the ordinary people.  One of the first laws in the beginning of the period under investigation is a law from Denmark. In 1558 Christian III of Denmark issued a law called the Koldingske Recess. Within the law is the section called Om drecht och klædebon, where regulations on dress and textiles is stated. These regulations give information on what types of textiles the elite considered as luxury, and what kinds of textiles were in circulation in society, but they also tell what lower groups of society were restricted from using.

In general, the law prohibited all people from wearing luxury textiles such as gyldenstycke and sølfstycke (silk embroidered with gold and silver threads) and blyant silk (a valuable kind of silk together with any other kinds of silk embroidered with gold or silver thread). The law also prohibited the usage of embroidered hair pieces, pearls on headwear or neckwear, gold trimmings, silver trimmings, together with gold and silver lace.

Concerning ordinary people, it is stated that no unfree people, burghers or peasants, or the unfree man’s wife or their children, are allowed to wear velvet, damask, or silk. However, an honourable not noble woman, presumably an unmarried woman, was allowed to wear a plain silk or velvet ribbon around her head. Does this mean that the king and his servants had actual experienced these groups of lower stand wearing these kinds of textiles? And is this a sign that these people had access to these kinds of materials? These are some of the question that are interesting to look further into.

What the regulation also tells us, is that it was the responsibility of the hospital to collect the fees of people who broke the law. Working with these laws, however, we have to take in consideration that we do not know whether people ever were prosecuted for wearing forbidden items, or whether they might have adapted or rearranged their need for luxury, so they would not get prosecuted.

Even though there is a lack of knowledge on how these laws were enforced in this period, and we do not know how effective they were in real life, these laws offer great material when working with fashion and textiles, and can be used to accquire information on many different aspects on early modern Scandinavia.

 
Literature:

Dalgaard, Hanne Frøsig: Luksusforordninger – 1558.1683,1736,1783,1783 Og 1799. Tenen – Dansk Tekstilhistorisk Forening 2015.

Secher, V. A. Forordninger: Recesser Og Andre Kongelige Breve, Danmarks Lovgivning Vedkommende 1558-1660. Vol. 1: Selskabet for Udgivelse af Kilder til Dansk Historie, 1887-1888.