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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.
 

Datini Conference 2018: “Maritime Networks as a Factor of European Integration” (13-17 May 2018)

Official panel of the Settimana at the City Hall

In May I had the possibility to participate to the 2018 Datini conference, or “Settimana”, in Prato. The theme of the conference – which is named after a 14th century merchant Francesco Datini, and celebrated its 50th anniversary – was “Maritime Networks as a Factor of European Integration”. The aim was to promote comparative analysis and to go beyond the isolated study of single economic systems, and understand the integrative role played by maritime connections around Europe and the Mediterranean, taking Fernand Braudel’s concept of Méditerranée as a starting point.

Official opening of the Settimana at the City Hall.

My paper, titled All roads lead to Venice. The role of public navigation in the Renaissance, discussed the system of trade which Venice developed from 13th century onwards, and which was based on the integration of private and public navies. This integrated system, which reached its apogee during the 15th century, helped Venice to become one of the main gateways for the long-distance trade between Asia and Europe during the medieval and early modern period. Thanks to the severaltrade routes that crossed the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, Venetian merchants were able to import oriental spices, expensive textiles, and other Asiatic goods to Venice and Europe. Equally, European manufactured goods were exported to the Middle Eastern ports, where they were transported to continental Asia.

Beside all the academic events, the conference is also a meeting point for European economic historians, and offers the possibility to attend social events, such as concerts and dinners. An interesting side note is that in 2020 the focus of the conference will be “Fashion as an economic engine: process and product innovation, commercial strategies, consumer behaviour”. 

 

Team Meeting in Copenhagen, 20-22 June

3 July 2018
Paula Hohti

Last week, our entire team gathered in Copenhagen for a three-day team meeting. This was our first big ‘milestone’ as a team, because for the past six months, we have all been engaged with identifying and collecting evidence for our project. We have gone through and photographed thousands of documents in Italian and Danish archives, from inventories and account books to notarial contracts, as well as looked at visual images in museums and printed books, and surveyed printed costume and pattern books and books of secret, searching for evidence of lower class dress, fashion and beauty.

Michele Robinson presenting us some of the sources she has been working on.

So last week, it was finally time to put all the sources together, and to assess how we want to use them and in what ways we will make the sources available for the public. Our researchers Stefania, Michele and Anne-Kristine broke down the sources in statistics, and I was extremely pleased about the results. So far, we have 780 artisanal inventories for Italy and 418 for Denmark that we can transcribe and use as a quantitative data. We have also identified 585 Italian printed books that can be used for qualitative analysis and experiments. In addition, we have many types of sources that support our work, such as account books, sumptuary law documents, diaries and friendship albums.

Chart showing the amount of collected inventories in Siena, Venice and Florence. By Stefania Montemezzo.

This data -and our database which will be made public in the future- will form an important basis for our future work when we think about how ordinary men and women dressed in the Renaissance period, where they bought their clothes and accessories, and how the lower social orders connected with and understood ‘fashion’. The wealth of evidence allows us, not just to speak and write about fashion dissemination in sixteenth and seventeenth Europe, but it also enables us to investigate how we can use documentary and visual data as a basis for our forthcoming historical and digital experiments, which will start next January. This will be so exciting!

Breakdown of class and gender depicted in Bartolomeo Grassi, Dei Veri ritratti degl’habiti di tutte le parti del mondo intagliati in rame (Roma: Bartolomeo Grassi, 1585). By Michele Robinson.

The possibility to gather and share the research material, and to be able to discuss ideas with so many bright researchers, is definitely one of the greatest benefits of an ERC project. But for me, personally, perhaps the greatest thing about this project is the collaborative nature of our work and a truly good team spirit. We have fantastic people in our team, and we are learning, brainstorming, communicating, planning, getting excited, and achieving goals together.

One of the highlights of our meeting was that it allowed us, once again, to spend time together and, not just work, but also have nice meals and a glass of wine after a hard day’s work! This time, we had invited another ERC project, the ARTECHNE led by Sven Dupré in the Netherlands, to join us for one of the evenings. We had an excellent dinner at Sticks ‘n Sushi, and fantastic conversations about our common interests and experiences, and possibilities for collaboration.

Sharing experiences with some of the ARTECHNE project team.

During the three days in Copenhagen, we took some important decisions about the forthcoming months: how we work as a team, what we want to achieve within the next six months, and last but not least, how we will involve the broader academic communities and general public more closely with our project. This Autumn, we will organise open lectures and set up voluntary activities around our project. If you are interested in participating, look out for the news section of our website and the newsletter for further information!