The release of the photos of Joseph Smith’s seer stone as well as the pouch made by Emma Smith that protected it, illustrates the sheer viscerality of material religion. It demonstrates the power that objects can have in the lives of religious believers and is a great example of how religion is not just something that is believed or felt abstractly or read through a text. Objects and bodies mediate religious experience.
The Material Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association bridges the gap between university-based and museum-based scholars in order to promote the study of material culture. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its founding, the Caucus sponsored a workshop in 2014, during the ASA national meeting in Los Angeles. Workshop organizers Debby Andrews, Sarah Anne Carter, Estella Chung, Ellen Gruber Garvey, and Catherine Whalen challenged workshop participants to play a variant of the classic game, “Twenty Questions” to see how such questions can inspire object-based exercises in either the classroom or the museum. The event was filmed and you can see the video here.
According to the organizers, “In these questions, there are two main entities at play, the object and the inspector. A third component is the setting in which the inspection takes place. The initial questions guide close scrutiny of the object. Try to answer them through inspection only. Resist the temptation to quickly identify and categorize the object, and to make assumptions about its purpose or meaning. As you make inferences about the object, consider the kinds of cultural knowledge that you base them on. As the questions begin to address the object in larger contexts, answering them will most likely require other modes of inquiry alongside inspection.”
Sadly for most of us who won’t hold these objects, we can’t know some of the sensory and physical properties. However, these questions can launch us into a thoughtful inquiry about the nature of religious objects and the materiality of early Mormonism.
Twenty Questions to Ask an Object:
1) What are the object’s sensory properties?
a. Sight: Line and shape (two-dimensional); form (three-dimensional); color (hue, light, dark); texture (reflective, matte)
b. Touch: Form and shape (round, angular); texture (smooth, rough); temperature (cold, warm); density (hard, soft)
c. Sound: Consider what sounds the object makes when manipulated
e. Taste, if appropriate
2) What are the object’s physical properties?
a. Materials (wood, stone, plastic; identifying materials may not be possible through inspection alone)
b. Size (length, width, depth, volume)
d. Number of parts and their organization (symmetrical, asymmetrical, distinct, merged)
e. Inscriptions (printed, stamped, engraved)
3) Does the object appear to be human made?
a. If it is human made, does it show evidence of natural processes? (oxidation, decay)
b. If not human made, does it show evidence of human intervention? (modification, wear)
4) How does the object interact
a. With human bodies?
b. With other species?
c. With its surroundings?
5) How is the object oriented?
b. Does it have an obvious front, back, bottom, or top?
c. Does it have open and closed parts? If, for example, it appears to have a “handle” or a “lid,” how do you know?
6) What is the object’s purpose or possible purposes?
7) Does the object prompt some kind of action or performance?
8) What is your emotional response to the object? What might it evoke for others?
9) How was the object produced?
b. Social structures
10) Who made the object and under what circumstances?
a. Was it made by one or more individuals?
b. Was the maker also the designer?
c. When was it made?
d. Where was it made?
11) What is the object’s history?
a. Who owned and/or used it?
12) Is the object part of a group of objects? If so, how?
a. Is it part of a genre? If so, what features does it share with other objects of its genre?
b. What is its spatial relationship to other objects?
c. Does it have a metaphorical relationship to other objects? If so, how?
d. Is it part of a collection, whether personal or institutional?
13) How does, or did, possession of the object relate to individual and/or group identity (e.g., class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nation, religion)?
14) Does the object relate to a set (or sets) of beliefs (e.g., spiritual, ideological)? If so, how?
15) Is the object part of a system (or systems) of exchange (e.g., commodity, gift)? If so, how?
16) What is its value (e.g., economic, cultural) and how might you locate it within systems of value?
17) Does the object reflect and/or structure human agency? If so, how?
18) What is the object’s contemporary context and relevance?
19) What is special or distinctive about the object?
20) How would you interpret it to others? What questions would you ask?
Those interested in further honing their material culture analysis skills might like to sign up for Harvard’s edX course “Tangible Things: Discovering History through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens and the Stuff Around You,” which starts today. This online course can be audited for free and is team taught by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Sarah Carter, Ivan Gaskell and Sarah Schechner.