Agency in and around the period room

Verplanck Room, Metropolitan Museum

Verplanck Room, Metropolitan Museum

 

Agency in and around the period room

I visited the Met two days ago and found myself in the period rooms of the American Wing.  I was interested in the new interpretive tool, the screen with a menu of options, in place of the old static placard that listed all the objects in a horizontal format.  It puts a whole lot more information at the visitor's fingertips and seems to give us more agency as well because we choose to navigate: we can focus on "people" rather than "objects" and so on.  But the period room itself is still a bizarre disembodied space with fetishized objects absent of users.  In the Verplanck room, a re-creation of the luxurious mid-18th century Wall Street house of one of the old and wealthy Dutch settler families, I was most interested in the issue of the slaves, the house servants who probably handled the objects as much as or more than the owners themselves did.  Not only are they invisible from the disembodied space, but they are absent from the interpretive screen as well.  They don't qualify as "people" or as context in any other way.  And in the end this is hard for me to stomach: why should a chair or a bowl or a table occupy me to the exclusion of the slaves whose job was to keep these objects clean and pristine?  Aren't the social relations embedded in these objects more interesting than whatever motifs or "style" they might show?  Deprived of real human agency, these objects become...what exactly?  And what is the rationale for displaying them in the first place?

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  • Agency
  • Faculty Work