Objects of Dispute


September 14, 2017 - October 5, 2017

Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries

Opening Reception: Thursday, September 14, 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm

Curators: Catherine Acosta, Yachen Han, Adrian Madlener, Jeffery McCullough, Annaleigh McDonald, Binglei Yan

Academic Advisor: Glenn Adamson

We live in uncommonly disputatious times. American political discourse is as polarized as it has ever been, to the extent that expressions of conflict – based on class, ideology, party, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, geography, and other forms of identity – are increasingly overwhelming other forms of public discourse. The sense of opposition is further exaggerated by new mass media and social technologies.

Objects of Dispute
considers this situation of mass disagreement through the focusing lens of objects. It is based on a course taught by Dr. Glenn Adamson in the fall term of 2016 in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies M.A. program – coincidentally, right as the American presidential election occurred. The course examined the role that material culture studies may be able to play in an environment of heated debate and misinformation. Rather than adopting the historian’s usual stance of objectivity and detachment, students looked closely at objects from the American past that relate directly to contemporary political debates.

The goal was to surface narratives through the study of these artifacts, and ideally, to find ways of opening up multi-textured discursive space that oppositional models do not allow. In addition, the class thought about the value of the fixed object – a static fact in the world – as an anchor for interpretation; and by extension, the value of the material culture historian as a public intellectual. This exhibition follows the course closely. Students and faculty selected objects that seem to them relevant to contemporary issues, and examine them as thought experiments from that point of view.

The curators invite you not only to consider the case studies presented here, but also the broader framework of the project. Do you agree that historical objects can serve a useful purpose in the context of contemporary debate? What methodological problems arise when undertaking that challenge? And if you were to choose an object from the past as a way of confronting the present, what would it be?

This exhibition was made possible, in part, with support from theSheila C. Johnson Design Center, Parsons School of Design: School of Art and Design History and Theory and the History of Design and Curatorial Studies M.A. program.

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