Interview with Kenneth Ames

What brought you to the BGC?

I thought that the BGC offered a rare opportunity to work at an institution dedicated to pursuing goals and objectives congruent with my own. At the BGC, I am able to teach and write about material culture, decorative arts, and the history of things in a supportive environment with people who are both interested and highly motivated. I have been here since 1996. Before that I was at the New York State Museum in Albany for eight years and, before that, at Winterthur. And somewhere back in the misty past, I taught undergraduate art history at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When I first started out in college, I was fascinated by Sienese painting of the 14th century. For some time, I thought that I would specialize in that material. But when I went to graduate school at Penn, I took a number of courses on architecture and even one on American furniture (this taught by Robert C. Smith) and those courses opened my eyes to other areas. There was also a bit of extra-curricular encouragement. In Philadelphia, the graduate student whose apartment I succeeded to had operated a part-time business buying up Victorian furniture and shipping it off to San Francisco. When I moved in, the cellar was full of fascinating things. It was like living above museum storage. The previous tenant’s business partner still lived across the hall and quickly convinced me that there was more where that came from. When not going to the university, he and I would head out in his Volkswagen microbus and snoop around the streets and junk shops of the Quaker city to see what we could find. We found quite a bit. I learned a good deal from this activity (orthodox John Dewey, learning by doing) and ended up writing a dissertation about American Victorian furniture.

What are your areas of interest?

To put it in a nutshell, you could say that I am interested in the domestic and civic material culture of the last five hundred years of the geographic area between the east coast of Italy and the west coast of the United States. I am also fascinated by various and changing definitions of living well, particularly as that concept is or has been understood and realized by people of moderate means.

How does your work fit in the BGC mission?

The courses I offer and the issues that I find compelling are all, in one way or another, variations on or related to the theme of the cultural history of the material world. The approaches, the lenses, and the subjects vary from course to course but all are facets of the same broad enterprise. For instance, I have been teaching American silver for four or five years now and am fascinated by the material and the aesthetic success of the many forms it has taken over three centuries. The American Arts & Crafts course, on the other hand, is interesting because of the ideas and issues the movement raises – and ultimately fails to resolve. I enjoy teaching courses in which a quorum of thoughtful, curious, and argumentative students banter and rail, tossing out comments, questions, observations, qualifications, exceptions, alternative explanations, and all the rest for the intellectual benefit of the group. More to the point, my courses are part of a larger package of courses offered by my colleagues, the totality of which adds up to a very ambitious program of cultural history and analysis. Few other institutions can rival the course offerings of the BGC.

What do you hope to pass on to your students?

I would like them to develop a lifelong interest in and curiosity about the material world. I would like them to feel at home in the world of goods and to know why things look the way they do, whether those things be cityscapes, suburban neighborhoods, chairs, tables, or handfuls of silverware. I would like them to be able to move knowingly and confidently through the material world, as spectators, participants, or interpreters, as they think appropriate. Beyond that, I hope that they gain some of the tools necessary to construct their own satisfying artifactual universes and to have meaningful and purposeful lives. Most of all, I would like them to keep on learning.

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