The third in a series featuring a Bard Graduate Center course. This month the focus is on:

Approaches to the Object

During fall semester 2015, Associate Professor Aaron Glass and Professor Jeffrey Collins led “Approaches to the Object,” one of three core courses required of all incoming MA students and PhD students matriculating from other institutions. Inaugurated in 2013 as a complement to the two-term historical survey of decorative arts, design history, and material culture, “Approaches” reflects the Bard Graduate Center’s multidisciplinary nature by introducing students with diverse backgrounds to the puzzles and possibilities of object-based scholarship across a broad variety of disciplines. Drawing on the varied expertise of Bard Graduate Center faculty and guest lecturers, the course highlights analytic methods and techniques from history, art history, archaeology, anthropology, dress history, the history of collecting and display, and object conservation. By investigating the taxonomic categories and associated institutions that drive the construction of knowledge about things, it reveals the intellectual scaffolding behind the terms and fields of “decorative arts,” “design history,” and “material culture,” and equips students to make informed and viable choices in the use of objects as scholarly evidence.

To help students put these diverse approaches into action, instructors brought objects to the classroom for examination and discussion each week. In addition, four term projects provided experience working with different kinds of evidence and methods of study. The first explored the textual traces left by objects through an analysis of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century probate inventories from Deerfield, Massachusetts—highlighting the challenges not just of paleography but of reconstructing and interpreting lost material worlds through written records. The second focused on objects’ intrinsic or material properties, adopting techniques of artifact study as proposed by Jules Prown. Here the challenge was to scrutinize and deduce with fresh eyes, forgetting what one thinks one knows and “reading” the object from the inside out. The third project traced objects’ cultural biographies, asking students to follow the movements and changing meanings and values of a familiar thing—a family keepsake, for instance—for the specific people who have owned and used it. In the fourth assignment, student teams applied the three prior approaches to objects on display at the Met—an Egyptian canopic jar, a Fang reliquary figure, and a tea urn designed by Eliel Saarinen—to explore how a combination of analytic perspectives yields a richer picture of objects as evidence of human history and culture.

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Medium: Travertine (Egyptian alabaster), blue glass, obsidian, unidentified stone Accession Number: 30.8.54 The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Date: 19th–early 20th century Culture: Fang peoples, Okak group Medium: Wood, metal Accession Number: 1978.412.441 On view in Gallery 352 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Students work with study objects in BGC 502: Approaches to the Object