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The Free-to-Readers Edition of Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds

As I discussed in a previous post, works in the Material Vernaculars series are being made available in a free-to-readers PDF edition via IUScholarWorks. The eponymous edited collection Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds was posted today and you can find it here:

If you think that high quality open and/or free access editions of scholarly monographs are a good thing, and if you have the means to do so, I urge you to purchase copies of the companion print or ebook editions as a way of supporting the cause and subsidizing the access of others, including those who cannot otherwise afford to obtain the book. If you really want to make a difference, consider donating to the not-for-profit publishers and libraries behind such efforts. In our case, you can contribute to the Indiana University Press (co-publisher of the Material Vernaculars series with the Mathers Museum of World Cultures) here:

Here is a screen shot showing you where to click to download Material Vernaculars. The image should link to the page in IUScholarWorks where the book is found. (The link is given above as well.)

slide1Happy reading!

Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds (is out now)

I am happy to share this note to report that the edited collection Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds has now been published. I am the editor of this volume, which includes contributions to material culture studies from Dan Swan and Jim Cooley, Jon Kay, Michael Paul Jordan, Danille Elise Christensen, and Gabrielle Berlinger. I love the work that my colleagues contributed to the book. In addition to sharing their scholarship, the volume serves to launch the Material Vernaculars book series of which it is a part. Also appearing in the new series, is Jon Kay’s Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers (it was published last month).

The new series is published by the Indiana University Press in cooperation with the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. IU Press is to be commended for its hard work bringing Material Vernaculars to press. Most of the papers in the volume were presented last fall at the 2015 Annual Meetings of the American Folklore Society. The papers were presented, revised, peer-reviewed, revised again, copy edited, typeset, proof-read, corrected and processed for final publication (etc.) in less than a year, a scenario that is simply unprecedented in the world of academic book publishing. And the results are great–a well-designed, well-edited book that is rich with color images. Its all first rate.

IU Press has a big sale going through tomorrow (October 30). Its a perfect time to check out their list and perhaps purchase this new title. Paperback and Hardback editions are now available. Electronic editions are on their way. (More on that asap.)


Who Cares About Craft as Traditional Knowledge?

This fall has been a particularly busy season for research-based programs at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. An an outgrowth of our Indiana Folk Arts: 200 Years of Tradition and Innovation exhibition and our participation in classes and programs for Themester, we will have hosted, by semester’s end, a very large number craftspeople or groups of craftspeople representative of a broad swath of vernacular making in Indiana. Because of our Themester mandate to focus on questions of Beauty in our engagements with these artist-craftspeople, our discussions with them have always had an aesthetic component. We have asked, for instance, questions like: “What characteristics do you associate with a beautiful weaving [or chair, or drum, or pottery bowl, or…]?” or “When producing for the marketplace, how do you balance functional use and aesthetic impact?” Art and aesthetics are a crucial part of the human experience and of what makes cultures distinctive and meaningful.

But the objects that we curate and interpret, and the makers of things with whom we engage, are not only about art. Even while many have both aesthetic and functional purposes, many others of our museum’s objects are not reasonably framed as art and some of our interlocutors are talented, knowledgeable makers and users of things, without being artists. Our work is bigger than art, as important as art is. Aesthetic values are part of larger cultural systems and those larger wholes are our focus. Whether in China or in Indiana, our work is about local knowledge, including traditional cultural knowledge. A big part of our engagements with makers focuses on the knowledge that goes into making–craft expertise along with local environmental and contextual knowledge concerned with uses, meanings, significances.

A detailed story in last Saturday’s Independent by Amalia Illgner is a good evocation of the kinds of concern we (particularly Traditional Arts Indiana, led ably by my colleague Jon Kay) try to bring to our work with craft objects, craft knowledge, and craftspeople. (I appreciate Matthew Bradley for sharing it with me.) Read the story (“Raiders of the Lost Crafts”) here. (I note here that, despite the declensionist hook and playful title, the author is not so obsessed with authenticity discourses that she disregards fruitful rediscovery of older craft knowledge through the study of museum collections and documentary materials. The story is a rare and rather sophisticated treatment of its subject.)


Who cares about craft as traditional knowledge? My colleagues and I do. We also like art and we also love seeing where contemporary craftspeople, including studio craft, DIY craft, and many others, are taking their passions–but documenting what people know and have long known is important and helping foster environments where those who have traditional cultural knowledge are supported and encouraged is key part of our mission. If you care about such things, you still have lots of chances to engage your interests at the museum this year. This week we will host a wonderful group of African American quilters and a talented maker of African drums. In following weeks, we offer chances to connect with Indiana limestone carvers, a hoop-net maker, a rosemaler, a pysanky artist, a Native American potter, a Zapotec weaver, and an Orthodox iconographer. Learning from such craftspeople is something we intend to keep doing as along as we can.

Reflections on The Mind is a Collection

On September 22, 2016 Indiana University’s Center for Eighteenth Century Studies held the 2016 Kenshur Prize celebration at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. The museum was an especially appropriate setting because the prize winning book was The Mind is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth Century Thought (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) by Sean Silver (English, University of Michigan). It was an honor to be asked by Center Director Rebecca Spang to join a panel of discussants of Silver’s book. What follows here are the remarks that I prepared for this occasion. Those paragraphs preceded by XX were not read in oral presentation but are noted here. Silver’s book, and companion digital exhibition, are an important contribution to material culture and museum studies, in addition to being significant in the fields of Eighteenth Century Studies and the history of ideas. My notes here presume a context present at the event but absent here–a general introduction to the author’s work and project, relevant commentary by the author, and commentary by my colleagues on the panel (who were chosen to represent a diversity of relevant perspectives on the book and project). I preceded my own remarks by welcoming the students and faculty of the Center to the museum and congratulating Sean on this important recognition for his book and exhibition.


I lack sufficient knowledge of the science, history, culture, and literature of this period, as well as of the relevant parts of cognitive science, to knowledgeably engage the heart of Sean’s remarkable work. Reflecting it central organizing device and thematic concern though, the project’s literal and conceptual organization as a museum-minded exhibition of museum mindedness does offer me a way in. I fear though that I have proven to be one of those rushed museum visitors trying to squeeze in a stop at the big city museum while in route to the airport, roller bag in tow. Passionately interested and markedly impressed, but also nervous and feeling pressed for time, here are a few reflections on my hurried visit. They address smaller vitrines and displays around the edges rather than the main exhibition hall with the core of the story. In the end, such sites of engagement are, of course, a specialty of my own field of folklore studies.

I was struck by the degree to which this is a book and digital exhibition (among the most sophisticated that I have encountered) of our moment. This is not in itself a complete surprise, of course (all of our writings would similarly qualify in degrees), but it does warrant closer acknowledgement. Those who work in museums have a love/not-love relationship with the museum-ification of everything that western societies (and others as well) are in the midst of right now. This is easiest to see in the proliferation of settings in which the word curator is made to apply. TED talks are curated as are meals, fashion shows, and car insurance options. What Barbara Kishenblatt-Gimblett speaks of as the curation of the life world is manifest in the extreme when we speak of curating’s one’s own person brand through, for instance, one’s social media engagements. When it comes to more-than-just-museums curating, there are many very cool things happening on this front in The Mind is a Collection—both the book and the digital exhibition. Like I am, Sean is a part of the zeitgeist. He has interests and passions that are socio-culturally and historically conditioned and he knows the mood of the present so as to anticipate the interests of his readers; but at the same time, his book is fundamentally about the curation of the life world and is a valuable reminder that there is much more to this than a present-day sensibility. I loved learning about the degree to which the curatorial style was a past-day sensibility for learned London, if not for the mass of the city’s residents. Something special happens when a well conceived, well executed project is perfectly calibrated between the ethos of its present and the ethos of the other time or place or context with which it is concerned.  Such dynamics could be investigated in any scholarly project, but here they just ring clear as a bell for me.

XX Another instance of this calibration of then and now ethoses concerns what here at IU we call—as reflected in our strategic plan, for instance—“a culture of making.” Even when Sean is discussing unfamiliar matters, I sense that nearly any practicing museum curator would swoon in response to his manifest love of objects, particularly in their status as manifestations of craft. This is a book and digital exhibition for material culture specialists, even if it deals with materials and concerns not uniformly familiar to the most established material culture disciplines. But outside the scholarly realm, ours is a moment of craft in countless guises, from molecular baskets concocted in materials engineering laboratories to yarn bombing on the streets of Bloomington. I have a friend who crafts artisanal reproductions of the earliest telescopes—the kinds of objects that would seemingly belong in the cabinets of Sean’s subjects. As my own students are documenting ethnographically in a wide range of domains and as the programs of the Mathers Museum reveal, a significant portion of our fellows of the present are in love with the hand made thing and, sometimes, with making things by hand. Such enthusiasms surely persist in a core of actors in each period and place, but they also go in and out of wider fashion. Ours is a maker-minded moment and this is an engaging book and digital exhibition written about the maker-minded living in another maker minded-moment by a maker-minded author. My pleasure again arises in part from the parallelisms found here. I also look forward to learning more about Sean’s in-progress work The Crafts of Enlightenment.


Figure: The landing page for Silver’s digital exhibition The Mind is a Collection.


XX For the social scientific reader, I also think that this book and digital exhibition participates in the contemporary conversation in the human sciences in a novel and interesting way. Like other particularly noteworthy works of our moment, it is a book about the recursive entanglement and co-constitution of humans (as individuals and in groups), objects, and ideas occurring together in particular environments. (For instance, consider Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World.) Its central concepts are shared keywords of our moment: design, complexity, network, embodiment, scale… Such matters interest many of us broadly, but in Sean’s project I find that they are being approached in fresh and new ways that I can happily begin carrying back into my own disciplinary conversations. His website and book are just the kinds of works that I could recommend to the graduate students with whom I work, as an anecdote to conventional approaches to conventional topics addressed with the help of canonical works. Put another way, the book and website engage shared interests in fresh ways. I say this from the perspective of someone who teaches a graduate course on Theories of Material Culture. I would welcome the challenge of working with students in that course in study of The Mind is a Collection.

XX The term material culture arose in the disciplinary context of anthropology. It fits and doesn’t fit in that field in a number of different ways in different times and places. In one now moribund American formulation, material culture was part of a triumvirate that also included mental culture and social culture. The phrase material culture persists despite our shedding of these two companion terms.  During the height of ideas and symbols-centric anthropology, material culture studies faced hard times in social and cultural anthropology. Folklore studies became a key contributor to the study of material culture during the time of its neglect in cultural anthropology.  Today, matters have changed again and material culture is front and center in anthropology and anthropologists face a changed landscape outside their field. The English Department at the University of Michigan has a nice website. When looking at the department’s faculty, one can sort them easily by research interests. In the past, but even today, many cultural anthropologists would be surprised to see that material culture is one of these departmental research foci. They would be even more surprised to see that twelve core faculty members in English—Sean among them—identify with this interest. The same dynamic is now active in many fields lacking deep histories of work in this area. Those who long studied material culture alone in a tiny disciplinary node now operate in a field that is broad and deep. Sean’s book arrives in this new context, one that is driven home each day when my editorial assistant and I open envelopes containing books sent to Museum Anthropology Review for review. If a skeptic asked me for an illustration of what a scholar of English could contribute to the material culture studies commons, The Mind is a Collection offers an incredible answer. But it also reveals the newer challenge for anyone working in material culture studies—this interdisciplinary field is now vast and sophisticated beyond the practical ability of most practitioners to keep up. Material culture studies has entered a new era.


Figure: The cover of The Mind is a Collection (Penn Press, 2015).

Let me close with a reflection on “thinkering” this is a great word prominent in a great project. In the contexts in which it comes up here, this neologism caused me to think of a pronouncement that I always make when discussing the pleasures of being a curator. It comes up sometimes when I am discussing careers with graduate students. It always comes up in my graduate course in Curatorship, and it certainly has popped out when a non-museum friend or colleague finds me at work cleaning a vitrine with Windex or measuring a gallery wall with a tape measure. What I have said countless times is that the special pleasure of being a curator is that it is the perfect mix of brain work and of hand work—hammering one minute, studying in next. Now this dualism participates in exactly the problematic conceptualizations that are at issue in Sean’s study, but he is generous and, in my reading, he gives our folk psychology back to us and lets us get on with the work. While he holds a professorship and not, to my knowledge, a curatorship, it is a pleasure to have engaged with the work of someone whose brain work and hand work are so well integrated and so well executed. I hope that soon Sean will get the chance to build a physical exhibition to go along with his book-as-catalogue and his digital exhibition.

Don’t Miss the Great Mathers Museum Building Debate


Built in the early 1980s, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures building is an example of Brutalist architecture, a modernist style reviled by some and revered by others. Two Indiana University historians with a research expertise in architecture fall squarely into one camp or the other. Eric Sandweiss, the current chair of the Department of History, and Michael Dodson, the current chair of the Dhar India Studies Program and a faculty member in the Department of History, have agreed to participate in a spirited debate on the relative beauty (or lack thereof) of the Mathers Museum building. In doing so, they will provide general insights into contemporary architecture and the contrasting and competing ways that beauty has been embraced, complicated, or rejected as a criterion for the evaluation and understanding of the built environment. The debate will be free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Themester 2016: Beauty, an initiative of the IU College of Arts and Sciences and the Office of the President.

See also the Themester and Museum events pages for this big event.

MMWC September, Continued

Its September and I am wondering why some of my friends are not on the email list for the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Its easy and free, just click on “E-Calendar Signup” on the museum’s webpage. Here is this month’s update.


Really Really Getting Up to Speed for Tomorrow, Fall

This week the Mathers Museum of World Cultures has been part of a larger Indiana University effort to get the word out about an interlocking set of events and initiatives. As readers here will have noted, these include the campus’ first First Thursday Festival (happening tomorrow), the Siyazama exhibition opening at MMWC (happening tomorrow after the First Thursday Festival concludes), and the College of Arts + Sciences’ Themester, which focuses on Beauty and includes a raft of MMWC activities–both tomorrow and throughout the semester. Here I want to post one last time before our big day tomorrow. My purposes are two. To lay out specifically what MMWC activities are happening and to provide a round up of the various communications and news stories that have appeared in connection with these events. Getting the word out is normal, but when some events are new (as First Thursdays is) it pays to really get it out. Here is a round up of coverage and a chance to get the whole picture, so as to not miss out.

First the MMWC part:

Tomorrow at the museum we host four visiting artists for demonstrations (10:30 to 11:30) and a narrative stage hosted by Jon Kay (11:45-12:30). [This will be the first use of our brand new stage!) Here is how we explained this part:

The Beauty of Indiana Folk Arts: Visiting Folk Artists Series–Viki Graber (Basketmaking), John Bundy (Decoy Carving), John Bennett (Blacksmithing), and Greg Adams (Willow Furniture)

Thursday, September 1; 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. (Demonstrations), 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (Narrative Stage)

Drop by and meet some of Indiana’s master folk artists while they make and create–Viki Graber (Basketmaking), John Bundy (Decoy Carving), John Bennett (Blacksmithing), and Greg Adams (Willow Furniture) will share their work and their art with you. The demonstrations and narrative stage will be free and open to the public, and are sponsored by Themester 2016: Beauty, an initiative of the IU College of Arts and Sciences.

Our artists guests have a break before they join the museum at First Thursdays for outdoor demonstrations and narrative stage presentations in the Culture Tent adjacent to Woodburn Hall. The Bicentennial Exhibition will be on display outdoors, providing engaging context.  Here is how we explained this:

First Thursdays–Indiana Folk Arts: 200 Years of Tradition and Innovation
Thursday, September 1, 5 to 7:30 p.m.

For more than 200 years Indiana has been home to a wide variety of folk arts. In celebration of the state’s Bicentennial, a special traveling exhibit has been developed by Traditional Arts Indiana, a program at IU’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures, with accompanying demonstrations by Indiana folk artists. Drop by and meet some of Indiana’s master folk artists while they make and create–Viki Graber (Basketmaking), John Bundy (Decoy Carving), John Bennett (Blacksmithing), and Greg Adams (Willow Furniture) will share their work and their art with you. Their presentations will be free and open to the public, and are sponsored by Themester 2016: Beauty, an initiative of the IU College of Arts and Sciences.

As First Thursdays concludes, we will open the Siyazama exhibition (as well as our two other Themester exhibitions–Costume: Beauty, Meaning, and Identity in Dress and Hózhó: Navajo Beauty, Navajo Weavings. Here is our overview of the opening event.

Mathers After Hours–Siyazama: Traditional Arts, Education, and AIDS in South Africa
Thursday, September 1; 7 to 9 p.m.

Join us for the opening of a special traveling exhibition–Siyazama: Traditional Arts, Education, and AIDS in South Africa–that explores how traditional arts, knowledge, and skills are used to address AIDS. The exhibition also showcases the Siyazama (Zulu for “we are trying”) Project, an arts education project based in KwaZulu-Natal, which uses traditional crafts to raise awareness about AIDS. The exhibition grew out of the South African National Cultural Heritage Project, a bi-national project led, in part, by Michigan State University Museum and MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online. The exhibition opening will be free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Themester 2016: Beauty, an initiative of the IU College of Arts and Sciences, and the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington.

I note that we also have a great performance and great food lined up for the opening! (see Figure 1 for a piece from Siyazama)

We hope to see you at all or some of this tomorrow. Now for the published stories and releases.

Sanya Ali wrote a nice piece for the Indiana Daily Student (“Mathers plans variety of programming for beginning of September“)

T. J. Jaeger wrote a nice article about First Thursdays, including its Mathers angles, for the Limestone Post. (“IU to Showcase Artists with Massive Monthly Festival“)

On the Art at IU blog, Karen Land posted a nice account of First Thursdays, including its Mathers parts, (“New First Thursdays festival puts the focus on IU’s arts and humanities, food and fun“)

In a message to IU students, staff, and faculty, Provost Lauren Robel invited the campus community to First Thursdays, including the Siyazama opening and other associated events. (“Inaugural First Thursdays Festival“)

First Thursday’s lead organizer, Ed Comentale, Associate Vice Provost for Arts and Humanities, authored a overview of First Thursdays for Inside IU Bloomington. (“First Thursdays Festival will showcase creativity on campus“)

There is a pay-walled story about First Thursdays in the Bloomington Herald-Times by Michael Reschke. Check it out if you have a subscription, just don’t feed the trolls. (“IU ‘First Thursday’ showcases art and humanities“).

In addition, there are press releases for Siyazama and Themester.

Hopefully that is enough information for everyone to really know what the deal is. I look forward to seeing you at our artists events, at First Thursdays, at the MMWC exhibition opening, and at all the great programs lined up for fall. Thanks to all who have worked to bring these events to fruition.

Figure 1: “Let’s Work Together to Fight AIDS” cloth by Johanna Sebaya, Mapula embroidery project, Winterveldt, North West Province, South Africa, 2005. | Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, courtesy of the Michigan State University Museum

Get Oriented to Themester 2016: Beauty

Reviewing the Mathers Museum of World Cultures events and exhibitions pages is probably the only way to get a full sense of all that we are doing for 2016 Themester, but for an overview of Themester as a whole and its focus on Beauty, I recommend checking out yesterday’s kickoff press release (Figure 1). In addition to the MMWC pages, it would also be great to see the Themester website. For MMWC, Themester boils down to three great classes [A400, E460, F360] taught at the museum, three great beauty-focused exhibitions [Costume, Hózhó, Siyazama], plus a lot of programming, including folk artists residencies throughout the semester, as well as films, lectures, and hands-on activities. Check out the full list here. Thanks go to the College of Arts and Sciences for including the museum in an impressive roster of Themester activities. Thanks too go to the students who are helping us organize our Themester activities and to the artists and tradition bearers whose work we are highlighting. Please join it this remarkable exploration of beauty around the world.

Figure 1: The Themester 2016 press release, which leads off with a photography b MMWC Consulting Curator Pravina Shukla, from her exhibition Costume.

Siyazama: Traditional Arts, Education, and AIDS in South Africa

Get all the details by checking out the new press release announcing the Mathers Museum of World Cultures’ programs and activities in support of the exhibition Siyazama: Traditional Arts, Education, and AIDS in South Africa. This wonderful exhibition is part of a great fall at the museum, now underway. I hope to see everyone at the opening at the museum right after the First Thursdays Festival. Thanks to Themester 2016 and the School of Public Health for supporting this exhibition and its programs and to the Michigan State University Museum for curating it.

Siyazama Release

Material Vernaculars: Institutional Role, Review, Authors, and Genres

The new Material Vernaculars series is co-published by the Mathers Museum of World Cultures with a huge amount of heavy lifting from our partner, the Indiana University Press. The first two volumes in the series are Folk Art and Aging by Jon Kay and the eponymous edited volume Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds. Jon Kay is the author of the first of these and I am the editor of the second. Jon and I are both on the IU faculty (in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology) and in the MMWC, where Jon is Director of Traditional Arts Indiana and Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage and I am the museum’s director. As the new series becomes known, it is reasonable to ask—is it just a publishing venue for the museum and its associates and partners?

MW Website

The answer here is no, but as you might guess, the series is intended to be the go to place when the museum does have its own publishing projects. This answer prompts then a couple of more points needing to be made. Peer-review for the series is fully managed by the IU Press and editorial review is a joint matter, thus it is quite conceivable that a museum project might be passed on by the press either at the early editorial review stage or at the peer-review stage. (I note that the press has already passed on one possible project, to illustrate this point tangibly.) Thus the series will hopefully be the home for additional MMWC authors and projects, but this is not guaranteed—and should not be.

The other side of this is that the series will hopefully come to publish authors without ties to museum, including colleagues not yet known to me. As the series homepage presently notes, “Potential authors interested in the Material Vernaculars series should contact the series editor Jason Baird Jackson via mvseries [at] and Aquisitions Editor Janice Frisch at frischj [at]” That phrase, and the series overview, are available here.

As noted there, a new series also poses genre questions. Here, my intentions as editor are broad. “The series accommodates a diversity of types of work, including catalogues and collections studies, monographs, edited volumes, and multimedia works.” To me, these are the key genres of relevance for research museum practice in ethnography, ethnology, and cultural history (our museum’s fields), but it could be that new, as yet not fully recognized genres could also find a home in the series. While the forthcoming edited volume is something of a sampler, future edited volumes will likely have a strong thematic focus. Stand alone essays will continue to find a home in the museum’s journal, Museum Anthropology Review.

I hope to hear from potential authors and editors interested in learning more about the series. Thanks to all who have supported this new effort.


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