Fath Davis Ruffins will be coming to speak at the Seminar in New York and American Material Culture Wednesday, October 20, 2010, on “Do Objects have Ethnicities? : Race and Material Culture.”

Fath Davis Ruffins is Curator of African American History and Culture in the Division of Home and Community Life at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., where she was previously the Head of the Collection of Advertising History. She received her education from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and the National Archives’ Modern Archives Institute in Washington D.C. She has been the President of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, recipient of the Award for Contribution to Scholarship from the Society for Women and Historic Preservation, and in 2009 was awarded a Research Opportunities Grant by the Smithsonian Institution to conduct research on comparative national public history in Australia.

She has published numerous essays and articles, most recently: “Black Material Culture and Community Consciousness Formation” in 1968: A Global Year of Student Driven Change (edited by Jeffrey Stewart, 2010); “The Paradox of Preservation: Gullah, Culture and Imagery” in Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art (edited by Dale Rosengarten, Theodore Rosengarten and Enid Schildkrout, 2008); “Money Makes a Difference: The Impact of Rising Prices on African American Collecting Since 1968” in The International Review of African American Art (January, 2008); and “A Community Revealed: The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture” in Curator (January, 2006).

Fath Davis Ruffins’ talk is entitled “Do Objects have Ethnicities? : Race and Material Culture.” Over the last 30 years, material culture studies have drawn from many sources, including the connoisseurship monographs of the decorative arts, which are resolutely “non-raced,” as well as ethnographic scholarship which focuses on the tangible and intangible productions of various “folk” who are highly specified in terms of race, class, and other categories such as region, religion, and ethnicity. Yet most material culture studies, especially those that analyze 20th century production/consumption patterns, tend to elide any considerations of race or ethnicity when discussing the individually produced and mass-produced objects of modern and contemporary societies. Certainly, individuals and groups make and use objects to signify personal and group identities. Do specific uses then inscribe identities upon particular objects? Can object identities be multiple, malleable, and include racial or ethnic associations in production, distribution, and use? Are there race-neutral or generic objects? Do object identities change based on the context of collecting and/or display? What do we mean when we say that an object is Latino or African American, or any other racial/ethnic designation? Does that make all other objects Anglo or white? The goal here is to raise questions and to stimulate both a theoretical and pragmatic conversation about race and material culture.

Please join us in the Lecture Hall at 38 West 86th Street, between Columbus Ave and Central Park West, at 5:45pm for a reception before the talk.