In September 1903 The Indianapolis Journal reported that Oliver S. Clay and his mother Charlotte “for years have lived in their home at 1405 East Sixteenth street, but on account of reverses, financial and otherwise, were compelled to mortgage their property for several hundred dollars, which, on becoming due, remained unpaid.” In many ways, Clay’s story of ill fortune might well be told of many of his early 20th-century neighbors. His father J.H. Clay had been the Pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Indianapolis until his death in 1892. After his father’s death Oliver was an advocate for African-American education and a Black political party, and in the 1902 election he led an African-American movement to vote a blank ballot, telling The Indianapolis Journal that “if the white politicians will give the negroes recognition then he will advocate voting.” However, like many Americans entertaining the American Dream, Clay’s ambition and hard work ended in tragedy as he was evicted, institutionalized, and eventually relegated to a potter’s field. The ultimate fate of his mortal remains punctuate both his unfortunate end and the way contemporary society routinely ignores the unpleasant histories at the heart of American life.
In 1901 the Public Library Bulletin reported on Clay’s aspiration to turn his home into what he dubbed the Claysonian Library. Clay’s collection included “the 315 volumes comprising the library of his father, the Rev. J. H. Clay, deceased, to which have been added by donation a sufficient number of books to make the collection 521 volumes, besides miscellaneous magazines and periodicals. The object is to cultivate a taste for literature among the young colored people, especially of the immediate neighborhood.” Oliver Clay’s neighborhood library was dedicated in April 1901 on what would have been his father’s 51st birthday, and several months later he received a gift of 50 volumes from Congressman Jesse Overstreet. The library subsequently hosted regular events at the Clays’ home and local venues, such as a lecture on the Emancipation Proclamation’s 40th Anniversary in January 1903.
In August, 1903, though, the Indianapolis Sun reported that Clay “has, with the furniture of the institution of which he is founder, been ejected into the street.” Clay moved his things back into the home and told the newspaper that “`You may say, mistah, that the Claysonian will be re-established in other quatahs soon and that the good work started by me will never die.’” In September a realtor returned in an effort to eject the Clays and once again “started to move the furniture out into the street. When he looked up he was gazing into the barrel of a revolver held firmly in the dusky hand of the Claysonian. `Claysonia forever!’ cried Oliver Clay, `and if you dare to move anything from this house you will forfeit your life.’” Read the rest of this entry
When visitors tour the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum this week they will be greeted by the relics of one of the world’s most traumatic shared events. The Museum opens to the public May 21st, and its collection of material artifacts, images, and oral memories documents the September 11 and February 2003 attacks on the World Trade Center and examines the broad consequences of global terrorism. The museum sits in half of the World Trade Center’s 16-acre shadow, a space that may perpetually play out the tensions between its roles as memorial landscape, history museum, forensics repository, cemetery, and tourist trap.
Much of the discussion about the museum has recently revolved around whether the site is an appropriate temporary or permanent resting place for human remains. Of nearly 3000 people who died September 11, about 1115 remain unrecovered and perhaps represented somewhere among thousands of unidentified human elements recovered from the site. In August 2011 the Medical Examiner held just over 9006 pieces of human remains (skeletal fragments as well as tissue), most of infinitesimal scale that an examiner described as the size of “a Tic Tac.” In February 2013 this figure was reported as 8354 human remain samples, and on May 10, 2014 7930 remains were ceremoniously transferred to the 9/11 Museum to be placed in a “repository at bedrock on the sacred ground of the site.” Those and any remains subsequently recovered will be subject to continuing forensic examinations “temporarily or in perpetuity.” Read the rest of this entry
Few dimensions of the material world have more sensory, tactile, and visual impact than food, a point that seems confirmed by the rich food studies scholarship, food advocacy groups ranging from sustainable agriculturalists to local food champions, and the avalanche of desserts on Pinterest. Nevertheless, somewhat less attention has focused on diners’ experiences of institutional foods: that is, mass-produced foods like the cheese pizza and tater tots clouding elementary school cafetoriums; the nutritionally balanced but unsightly purees scooped onto hospital plates; and the reheated frozen food adorning plastic prison trays and military mess halls. Observers have long dissected a widespread sentiment that such meals are perceived as unappealing and discarded in massive quantities, but much of this attention fixes on food waste and does not always confront why we find some foods so unappetizing in the first place.
An enormous amount of food photography acknowledges the desires projected onto food and the depth of emotional sentiment invested in images. A 1996 survey of institutional diners examining negative perceptions of such foods found that consumers rated the “manner of food presentation” lower than every other factor; despite recognizing that many consumers found institutional foods visually unappetizing, though, the study focused on how that reception mirrors our negative stereotypes that precede their consumption, devoting little attention to the ways our visual and sensory interaction with food shapes its consumption. Observers often seem unable to fathom the idiosyncratic ways we actively perceive, eat, and discard food, and they routinely fail to understand that much of the desire we deny institutional foods is linked to their visual aesthetics. Read the rest of this entry
Much of the lure of archaeology rests in the seduction of things: we are fascinated with the texture, color, heft, and odor of material artifacts that invoke antiquity, the allure of the alien, and the sensory richness of material life. Yet we often cannot physically experience artifacts that are in distant places, and many objects are too fragile to be handled. A variety of technologies now make it possible to produce exceptional 3D digital models of artifacts that can be rendered as visual and even material recreations: now archaeologists can visualize or handle a perfectly accurate scale model of, for instance,a 20th-century cap gun, a butchered dolphin bone from Jamestown, a Roman oil lamp (this example is from a 17th-century context at Jamestown), or an effigy pipe, all scanned by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory and included in their Virtual Curation Museum.
For archaeologists, much of the attraction of 3D artifact scanning is its documentation of artifacts in distant repositories; scanned artifacts can be accessible to scholars even if they remain in private hands; and virtual documentation can assist us in conserving especially fragile things. Increasingly more archaeologists are no longer wedded to the expectation that their career rests solely on digging sites that are “theirs”; instead, increasingly more of us are working with museum and archival collections, and 3D artifact scanning would allow increasingly more work with curated collections in distant places. Nevertheless, some of the most interesting implications of 3D scanning may be the new “artifacts” it produces in the form of scans and recreated objects and the ways these digitized things illuminate what archaeologists and audiences consider to be “authentic” artifacts. Read the rest of this entry
A mobile billboard is rolling around Indianapolis Indiana until April 20th pleading for help finding Boomer, a poodle thieved from the car of his owner Eddie Williams. Williams purchased the billboard to circulate through the city for five days offering a $1500 reward for the return of Boomer, no questions asked. The billboard rental cost $1950, in addition to the cost of hiring a private investigator to assist, but Williams dismissed the cost, indicating “I don’t care about the money. What I care about is Boomer.” Williams is a truck driver who travels with his dog, and he said that “He’s not a dog to me he’s a little human. My little human, and he’s my travelling companion.”
The lengths Williams has gone to secure Boomer just a week before Lost Dog Awareness Day probably do not surprise many other pet owners. Boomer is simply one of many pets granted a status that places them firmly alongside humans while illuminating the philosophical complexities of human and natural relationships, childhood, public health, and consumer culture. Boomer and his peers are distinctive if not unique material things quite unlike prosaic commodities, cast as anthropomorphized “family members” endowed with nearly all of the fundamental characteristics we associate with humans. Read the rest of this entry
This week an FBI art crime team announced that it is investigating a collection from central Indiana that includes a vast range of material things from all over the world, ranging from World War II items to stone tools to human remains. I have absolutely no connection to this project that happens to be in my neighborhood, but archaeologists and FBI officers who have surveyed the collection have publicly confirmed that it has astounding global and temporal scope and includes thousands of objects. For archaeologists and observers committed to preservation, the most important implications of the investigation are perhaps not about the specific things in the collection and their ultimate disposition. Instead, we might be more alarmed by the public response to the investigation, which has rallied to defend the legal footing for such collections, attack the role of the government and archaeologists patrolling artifact trade, and ignore the moral dimensions of human remains as collectibles.
After a news conference this week, the blogosphere theatrically lit up with property rights defenses, conspiracy theories, racist xenophobia, and attacks on the President. Rather than illuminate how materials such as human remains and mortuary artifacts might be best preserved under genuine museum conditions or returned to legal descendants, the press and blogosphere have fixed on painting the state—and allied archaeologists—as a step away from raiding all our coffee cans of arrowheads. This is probably an emotionally satisfying response to creeping wariness of the state, but it avoids the moral issues at the heart of this and many more cultural patrimony cases: human remains, mortuary artifacts, and unique culturally specific artifacts have been reduced to the status of property no different than any other thing and accorded no dignified treatment or preservation that is informed by descendants. During a week that many people raced to ensure that National Geographic did not air a show with World War II German soldiers’ remains, the Indiana investigation has been greeted by a contrasting defense of personal property and nearly no commitment to the dignity of human remains now claimed as collectibles. Read the rest of this entry
In 1855 the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened, and by the time it moved in 1935 thousands of patients had been buried on the hospital grounds. The Mississippi asylum’s story is by no means unique: A vast range of mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and chronically ill Americans found themselves captive in dehumanizing institutions, lost to desperate and distant families and unceremoniously buried by the state. Much of archaeology’s mortuary landscape is peopled with similar lives that ended in asylums, battlefields, slave quarters, distant workplaces, prisons, and long-forgotten cemeteries.
At its best, archaeology dignifies these lives by treating their stories and forlorn remains with scientific rigor and moral respect. When the University of Mississippi took aim on the former asylum grounds Mississippi State University’s Nicholas Hermann led a team that surveyed the site to document and preserve the scores of dead patients now consigned to unmarked graves alongside the contemporary Medical Center. It is this moral notion of dignity that was violated by National Geographic Channel International’s “Nazi War Diggers,” which released (and then retracted) a promotional video last week on the four-episode series documenting the recovery of wartime dead who “lie rotting under World War Two’s Eastern Front.” This week the channel abruptly placed the series on “indefinite” delay (and removed all traces of it from their web page), awkwardly acknowledging that it was reviewing the series “while questions raised in recent days regarding accusations about the program can be properly reviewed.” Read the rest of this entry
In the waning moments of World War II the Soviet Army launched a massive Baltic offensive, and the German Army Group Courland was among the Nazi units that became isolated along the eastern front until the surrender in May 1945. Between its formation in October 1944 and the surrender in May 1945, six major engagements were fought by the Army Group, with about 189,000 Germans surrendering to the Soviets. Like every wartime landscape, the region was littered with material culture, ranging from arms and vehicles to human remains, and like many World War II landscapes this relatively recent material heritage has long been pilfered by collectors. The excavators who seek out the material remains of the war for pillage and profit are often referred to as “black diggers,” in contrast to “white diggers” who are working to recover wartime dead in places like the Eastern Front, where perhaps four million dead remain missing in action.
The assault on the remains of the Army Group Courland is now somewhat surprisingly being spearheaded by National Geographic, which is promoting its alarming reality show “Nazi War Diggers.” A host of archaeologists immediately responded to a video from the show that featured human remains recovery that broke from all standard archaeological recovery methods and most standards of human dignity, let alone archaeological ethics (and the channel hastily removed the video and posted an awkward defense). The show features several avocational collectors (including a war artifact dealer) superficially committed to preserving the remains of the war, including human remains. Read the rest of this entry
A host of fashion gurus, marketing mavens, and subcultural theorists have long championed spectacular stylistic distinction as a politically empowering and self-affirming force. These observers define style as an aesthetic and material expression of selfhood that confirms our uniqueness and displays our links to circles of like-minded people. This month, though, New York magazine’s Fiona Duncan was the latest observer mystified by the emergence of sameness: that is, instead of seeking out distinguishing style and visibly discernible brands, many consumers instead appear to be embracing the plain and non-descript, trooping off to secure the innocuous jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers hawked at the likes of Old Navy and Abercrombie and Fitch. Instead of looking to the red carpet for our fashion cues and monitoring the elite for material standards, at least some of us appear to be parroting Jerry Seinfeld’s garb and venturing to Costco for household material tips.
Archaeologists and style-makers alike tend to assume that personal and group identities will inevitably be marked off by visible difference, making style a visual code that somewhat theatrically displays our singular identities. Stylistic distinction certainly has not been read its death rites, but aesthetic and behavioral uniformity can no longer be reduced simply to disempowering assimilation. The archaeological question is how stylistic homogeneity and the appearance of banality may have radical political implications and not simply reflect the sheep being led to consumer culture’s slaughter. Read the rest of this entry
Much of the apprehension once sparked by youth culture has now been reduced to consumer theatre: any suburban teen or 20-something can don punk, goth, or hippie style supplied by chain stores that sell pre-torn jeans, mass-produced tie-dye shirts, or black nail polish. Youth culture may once have referred to a generationally distinct experience, but today it is shorthand for a marketing demographic, a consumer identity that fancies creative and even rebellious personalities are confirmed in shopping. The contemporary youth marketplace is populated with contrived “edginess” projected onto the likes of Iron Maiden shirts, cannabis earrings, and shotgun shell shot glasses, but it is not clear that those trinkets or shows of stylistic resistance pose any significant threat to the established order of things.
Post-war youth experience has been distinguished by a progressively persistent marketplace appeal to boomers and successive waves of Gen X-Y-and-Z’s that has aspired to sell youth resistant aesthetics. On the one hand, mass-produced commodities tend to reduce genuine subversiveness to aesthetics or reproduce reactionary politics behind the guise of ironic humor. Bands pilfered from history become an aesthetic “look”; racy promiscuity clumsily poses as independent morality; and drug allusions paint drug consumption simply as a pleasure pathologized by elder ideologues.
On the other hand, though, youth culture is a rich terrain of digital spaces, musical tastes, sexualities, and materiality that ideologues rush to manage yet can never predict or control. The caricature of a homogeneous youth culture bound by birthdays ignores the diversity of contemporary experiences and the degree to which youth consumers acknowledge the patent absurdity of consumer culture. The wall of sex, drug, and rock shirts at mall stores may be less about public generational revolt than they are soliloquys: consumers clad in Pink Floyd shirts imagine and find pleasure in their perceived creativity and its violation of bourgeois normality. Read the rest of this entry