Interview with Amy F. Ogata

What brought you to the BGC?

I have been here almost ten years. I came from teaching at an art school in Cleveland, which was my first job after finishing my PhD. The nice thing about that job was that they were interested in the history of design and craft, so I designed and taught two courses on that subject, which allowed me to draw on my dissertation research. I liked teaching the material and when the BGC job was announced, I jumped at it.

What are your areas of interest?

My interests are in 19th- and 20th-century European and American history of design, history of architecture, and material culture. I am now working on a book on material culture of childhood in the United States after World War II and it is a bit of departure from the other work that I’ve done. It will be an interdisciplinary look at how objects, spaces and things are part of a material world of mid-20th century middle-class childhood which, perhaps surprisingly, valorized the abstract idea of creativity.

I was drawn into this because I had done some work on the idea of childhood innocence at the turn of the 20th century. After I had a baby, I realized that the concept of modern middle-class childhood is a largely commercial one. I became interested in finding out why middle- class parents were sold some of these notions, such as needing to have lots of equipment for your baby or child, and the belief that providing these things, such as toys or special rooms, would make your baby smarter or more creative. I found it especially interesting that creativity was something that parents were trying to cultivate in their children. I started thinking about it in historical terms and at first thought I’d concentrate on the toy industry because it changed so radically after World War II. Then I began to see that this was a preoccupation in other areas, especially during the Cold War era. So the book will include not only a chapter on toys, but also a discussion of postwar American schools, the single-family house —especially the playroom, playhouse, and bedroom— as well as public spaces, such as playgrounds and museums, and even television.

How does your work fit in the BGC mission?

I consider what I do interdisciplinary, but I’m trained as an art historian so I put the emphasis on things visual and material. In interdisciplinary work there are, obviously, many different disciplinary biases. Some scholars privilege economics, some privilege politics. I privilege the visual and material. I study things, whether made by hand or by machines that are part of a broader-cultural discourse. I also try to look at these things in the intellectual contexts that make them meaningful. I’ve worked on Art Nouveau and primitivism, world’s fair souvenirs and commodity culture, now goods and spaces for postwar American children, and my next project will probably be on mid-19th century France.

What do you hope to pass on to your students?

I hope to make them better writers. I hope to make them more critical consumers of ideas of texts, and of images. I hope they would come away with a sense of confidence— that they would find a stake in their own work— and that they would have ambitions to contribute something to the broader knowledge of the field.

While I take pleasure in all of my courses, one I really enjoy teaching is Politics and Design of Worlds Fairs. It starts around 1851 with the Great Exhibition in London and ends with the 1964 New York World’s Fair. This course offers a wonderful opportunity to read many different kinds of texts— from disciplines like anthropology, sociology, architectural history, history, and cultural studies. It allows many different ways of looking at these grandiose events that were the major source of popular entertainment in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, and it offers students a chance to work with an abundance of primary sources.

Back to top