Musical Objects in Shifting Contexts
As much as many of us would like to deny it, the art/artifact dichotomy is still with us, and denies many objects comfortable homes in art, anthropology, or natural history museums. Moreover, it runs the risk of alienating the individual viewer within a mass of academic debris, simultaneously blurring aesthetic appreciation and proper contextualization. The small exhibit discussed in this short article took a group of hand-made instruments that had previously been displayed only in art galleries or played in musical communities (such as exhibits in the Tyler Art Gallery, Oswego, NY; Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, CN, and the Worker’s Arts and Heritage Center in Hamilton, ON) and interpreted them within an ethnographic context, attempting to complicate the division between fine art and anthropology museums. In other words, distinct from these objects’ previous display in a number of art galleries, this exhibition focused on the fluidity of practice, process, and performance—emphasizing the transformation of not only objects, but the people who interact with them, creating a hybrid aesthetic appreciation that, we hoped, would offer a more accessible solution to the art/artifact dichotomy.
We also started from a position of faith in the unfolding meaning, rather than fixed reality, of contemporary objects. Knowledge, we believe, grows from thinking with, from, and through things, not just about them, and the aim was, in part, to show how our perception of things is governed and directed by discourse. We thus began by asking: what, really, constitutes these objects’ cultural context? We recognized from the outset that as objects move in and out of different environments, their meanings shift within those movements and reinterpretations. In this case, these objects were created to exist in a group context, specifically to be played with (as opposed to for) gatherings of people. For this exhibition, their identity shifted to one that was entirely presentational: they were displayed (not played) and hung in aesthetic groupings on the walls, but interpreted as artifacts to be experienced as conveyers of information. They would be viewed and not heard, though the hope was that they would inspire the same kinds of conversations that they provoke when they are played in a group.
We also approached this exhibit from a critical position, questioning the traditional anthropological method of contextualization, placing importance on the context and function of the object. We asked: What do we want these objects to communicate? And: Where do we find ourselves when both aestheticization and contextualization do not provide an adequate experience? In the single-room gallery, using a combination of text, guided narrative, and physical placement of the objects, we attempted to highlight a community and sustainability-focused personal narrative, grounded in the historical tradition of makeshift instruments—built into a collection of objects—refuse reincorporated into life as musical objects. It thus grew, on many levels, to be about process—not only the process of fabricating the instruments, but of community-building and environmental responsibility, as well as the conversation of curating.
Like Alfred Gell (1998) suggested was possible, rather than placing the objects neatly within established systems of cultural meaning, we attempted to treat the instruments as social agents in and of themselves, focusing on relationships—to usage, to people, and to history–rather than on the things themselves. As such, in the same way that transforming a pie tin into a banjo invites delight and scrutiny, so too does displaying that banjo (and other such objects) in a museum context, as opposed to observing it outside the walls in a song-circle. In this frame, the instruments are seen as agents, as active subjects, rather than objects of performance (as was the original intention of the maker) and by simply being, and by being presented in a formal way in a formal space, we were given the opportunity to draw attention to how objects can be transformative, in a web of relationships between people and things.
How can we move towards more holistic representations, increasingly collaborative approaches, and away from the fetishization of material collections? In this tiny show, we discovered that it is not necessarily the lessons and information learned, but the increase in depth of meanings that defines the agency of displayed objects. This necessitates, we suggest, encouraging our audiences to think beyond the frame, to envision larger communities beyond the boundaries of the museum. And indeed, when the show was over, the instruments were not placed back in boxes, returned to storage to await another exhibition opportunity; the went back to their everyday context—to the community, to be played.
Zeke Leonard is Assistant Professor in Environmental and Interior Design at Syracuse University, specializing in sustainable practices and responsible design.
Emily Stokes-Rees is Assistant Professor in the Graduate Program in Museum Studies and oversees the Sue&Leon Genet Gallery at Syracuse University.