Foregrounding the forgotten: Launch of a new interdisciplinary network for the study of overlooked material cultures

This guest blog comes from Lucy Byford, a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh’s art history department researching the avant-garde magazines and performance of Dada in Berlin. Together with co-founders Dr. Lucy Weir, Erica O’Neill, and Alexandra Chiriac, Lucy has set up the network ‘Modernist Methods’ (@BeyondFineArt) for researchers working on overlooked material cultures. Here are some reflections on the launch last week.

On the 12th of February, a band of rebel researchers from the disparate departments of Art History, English Literature, Museum Studies, Cultural Studies, and History gathered at the launch for the ‘Modernist Methods: Beyond Fine Art’ network, which took the form of a half-day workshop and seminar-style discussion. This is the first of a series of training events designed to tackle the tricky matter of how to research and curate cultural products from the late nineteenth to twentieth centuries which seem to have slipped through the net of history, either because they were a bit extreme, or they defied categorisation, or perhaps because the cultural artefact(s) in question no longer exist. This is not a neutral issue. While documentation denotes value, sparsely stocked archives can conversely constitute a form of erasure for oppressed demographics.

With this in mind, we each presented challenges incurred by our research ranging from the theoretical to the logistical. For example, Dr. Lucy Weir touched on how the idea of preservation is implicit in the term ‘to document’, and so does not acknowledge inevitable transformations that occur at the point of documentation. Meanwhile Leverhume fellow, Dr. Natalie Ferris, is working on the highly visual poetry of Ana Hatherly, whose partial career in intelligence means that many of her biographical records still remain under strict lock and key at Bletchley Park. Researchers of Dada in the room exchanged tips on how to remain sane whilst trying to establish a clear account of the movement’s performances.

Lucy photo 1

Our discussion progressed from questions surrounding the reconstruction of original contexts in museums and galleries, to lingering tensions between scholarship and creative practice, as well as the advantages and limitations of sticking to a mantra of firm, but arguably impossible, critical distance from one’s own research interests. Despite the plethora of disciplines represented around the table, from early twentieth-century dance and design histories, to 1970s film, television and comic book studies, we all shared an interest in the emerging field of material culture, i.e. the study of stuff, things, objects or events, and the ephemera they leave behind. And we were all, to some extent, acquainted with, and interested in, the pitfalls that arise when skirting the edges of an academic discipline.

Perhaps most striking – for me at least – was hearing about prejudices towards certain research areas, for example, historians focusing on such vernacular sources as television (the horrors!), or art historians focusing on design. I am sure it must sometimes be difficult for researchers of design to concentrate with the ghost of Kant still looming over them, whispering ‘art can never be functional’, while Clement Greenberg floats beside him replying ‘yes, and the commercial is a pollutant in the pure waters of abstract modernism!’

These issues perhaps lead back to the fact that, long after the advent of reader and reception studies, some of the humanities are still grappling with the idea that their role is not simply to ascribe meaning to a cultural product, but also to address the wider societal functions of this same creation. Meanwhile, others are still restrained by the very same distinctions between high and low culture which the avant-garde so readily subverted a century ago.

I suspect I am not alone in my opinion that this meeting of minds provided a valuable opportunity to reflect on the discrepancy between the interdisciplinary outlook of today’s researchers and an instable job market demanding sure experts in a clear-cut subject area. How to square this circle? The answer, of course, was self-evident: peer-to-peer solidarity and support, through initiatives like the Modernist Methods network and beyond.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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