Chapter 17. Living in a material world: object biography and transnational lives

Karen Schamberger, Martha Sear, Kirsten Wehner, Jennifer Wilson and the Australian Journeys Gallery Development Team, National Museum of Australia

Table of Contents

Object biography
Object biography and Australian Journeys
Object biography: Guna Kinne’s Latvian national dress
Dàn tre bamboo musical instrument created by Minh Tam Nguyen
Conclusion: objects make a transnational life

In 1989, Mrs Guna Kinne wrote to the National Museum of Australia about her Latvian national dress. ‘As I have no female descendants,’ she explained, ‘I wish to donate the costume to an institution, preferably the National Museum.’[1] The museum, then actively pursuing the development of a migration heritage collection, gratefully accepted Mrs Kinne’s offer.

As part of the donation, curator Sally Fletcher wrote to Mrs Kinne asking for information about the object and its owner.[2] Mrs Kinne replied with a letter detailing how she had begun making the dress as a teenager in Riga in the late 1930s, had taken it as her ‘most important possession’ when she fled the Soviet invasion of Latvia, completed it while a Displaced Person in Germany and wore it at protests for Latvian independence in Australia.[3]

It was clear that for Mrs Kinne the dress’s life and her own were inextricably interwoven. The story of how the dress was made and worn was also her story, connecting Riga with Wangaratta and adolescence with old age. Further still, however, it was apparent how much the costume had shaped Mrs Kinne’s experiences. Its thick and bulky fabric made her only suitcase heavy as she ran to catch the last Red Cross train from Gdansk to Berlin, and, on the day she wore it proudly for the first time, she met the man who would become her husband. She went to great lengths to make and keep hold of the dress, and each time she put it on the feelings it gave her to wear it—physically, emotionally, culturally and politically—formed an integral part of how she experienced the events in her life.

During her lifetime, Mrs Kinne assembled the story of making, wearing, keeping and giving the dress as a form of mutual biography. This was not, however, a biography in the conventional sense; it did not employ a completely linear narrative, and it was made as much from materiality as it was by words. The dress was not just a trigger to memory, it was a rich source of embodied knowledge about personal experience. Touching and talking about the dress collapsed space and time, bringing Riga in 1939, a Displaced Persons camp in Germany in 1945 and the streets of Melbourne in the 1970s together in a single moment.

From early 2009, Mrs Kinne’s dress will be on display in the new Australian Journeys Gallery at the National Museum of Australia. Australian Journeys explores the transnational character of Australian experience. It traces the passage of people to, from and across the Australian continent and examines how migrants, sojourners, tourists and travellers have built and maintained connections between places in Australia and places overseas.

In developing the exhibition, the Australian Journeys Gallery Development Team has sought to better understand how objects participate in, shape and express transnational historical experience. We have explored how objects—understood broadly to include things, images, media and text—connect people, across time and space, with their own historical selves as well as with places here and abroad. Drawing on recent material culture scholarship, we have employed a method of ‘object biography’ to examine the historical agency of particular objects and collections in mediating transnational experience. We have also paid particular attention to the idea that objects generate what film-maker David Macdougall has called ‘being knowledge’ and what we call ‘object knowledge’—embodied understandings of the world that constitute the foundation for any understanding of lived experience.[4]

In this chapter, we present two ‘object biographies’ that reflect complex intertwinings of the life histories of an object and a human subject. We reflect on what the process of exploring the agency of the material world through ‘object biography’ might reveal about the development of transnational selves and their examination through biography. We also suggest the value of attending more closely to the ways autobiography and biography might take material as well as written forms, particularly in relation to the development of museum collections and museum exhibitions.

Object biography

A focus on the flow of people, things, ideas and practices across national boundaries defines transnational scholarship.[5] Rather than seeing these flows as distinct streams, a growing body of work argues that places, people, things, practices and ideas, constantly in motion, shape each other.[6] An effort to understand better how things participate in this interaction has led the curatorial team at the National Museum of Australia to employ object biography as a method for researching collections and developing the Australian Journeys Gallery.

Object biography is an analytical process that has emerged within material culture studies as a way to reveal and understand object agency. As Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall have described it, an object biography examines an artefact’s life history to ‘address the way social interactions involving people and objects create meaning’ and to understand how these meanings ‘change and are renegotiated through the life of an object’.[7] Such a biography might include information about an object’s genealogy, its manufacture, use, possession, exchange, alteration, movement and destruction or preservation, obtained from a wide variety of sources. Considering an object’s life in a dynamic, active relationship with human lives raises questions about how people and things articulate in culturally and historically specific ways. One set of questions revolves around how object relationships form, form part of, perform or represent a sense of self.[8] A second set arises from arguments for the agency of objects in these processes.[9]

Object biography makes notions of self and agency more dynamic, more complex and more culturally specific. It also suggests the merits of an approach to the biography of people that engages with material culture and an individual’s personal, social and cultural relationship with objects. ‘[E]mphasizing the manner in which things create people,’ Gosden argues, ‘is part of a rhetorical strategy to rebalance the relationship between people and things, so that artefacts are not always seen as passive and people as active.’[10] This is the way in which much biography, even in museums, is written. When objects feature in personal biography, they are often positioned as relics or illustrations. This diminishes or obscures objects’ agency in shaping a life by restricting them to memorial or representational roles, and limiting the range of their effects to impressions on a somewhat disembodied mind, rather than a sensing and perceptual body.

Understandings of lives and events experienced across the boundaries of nations can be enriched particularly by a conversation with material culture studies, which are increasingly moving towards explorations across the boundaries of materiality and subjectivity. Gosden and Marshall, reflecting on Marilyn Strathern’s study of ideas of a distributed self in Melanesia, argue that attending to the complex relationships between people and things ‘has radical implications for the notion of biography. Material things are not external supports or measures of an internal life, but rather people and things have mutual biographies which unfold in culturally specific ways.’[11] Gosden’s articulation of an ‘object-centred approach to agency’ draws our attention to ‘the effects things have on people’, particularly the way ‘our senses and emotions [are] educated by the object world’.[12] By exploring how subjectivity is created by the material world, Gosden has shifted the debate from focusing, at least initially, on the ‘meanings of objects’ towards a closer reading of their effects.[13]

An understanding of how embodied experience is created by the material world opens significant possibilities for researchers exploring the lives of people and how things have moved between places that each represent substantially different material and cultural conditions. Indeed, much of the recent attention given to object agency and object biography can trace its origins to ‘a broadening of research paradigms to include transnational movement and connection’.[14] In their influential articles on the social life of things, Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff proposed biography as a means to understand the agency of objects that moved through space and time.[15] Gosden’s further articulation of the approach has emerged from analysis of the flows of people and goods associated with colonialism and imperialism in Papua New Guinea and newly Romanised Britain.[16]

Gosden applied his ideas about the effects of objects to a reading of change and continuity in the material culture of the period surrounding Britain’s incorporation into the Roman Empire (150 BC – 200 AD). What emerged was an ‘overwhelming impression…of variety, fluidity and regional difference’. This, he admits, leads naturally to an emphasis on transformation: how ‘one set of forms becomes another’. This suggests that there is merit in careful readings of the ‘logic’ behind the creation of hybrid objects and perhaps, by extension, a hybrid self. Gosden writes:

Overall, cultural forms always have two conflicting elements: they are often made up of bits and pieces taken from many places on the one hand, but these are quickly formed into a coherent whole on the other…We should not spend time trying to identify the original elements of a bipartite Romano-British culture, but rather look at the logics by which the pieces were combined.[17]

These comments have valuable resonances for biographers. Gosden suggests that rather than linear readings of the intersection of two worlds, we might more usefully engage with the non-linear logics that create a hybrid material world, and, in turn, how this hybridity shapes human subjectivity.

More importantly, however, he argues that we need to move beyond even that idea towards notions of transubstantiation, ‘which can look at how substances, such as stone, bone, metal or clay, take on forms and qualities which transgress the boundaries between types of substance’. Gosden writes:

Of even greater interest is that basic alchemy of human being, whereby other substances effect the flesh and blood object of the human body, thereby transmuting a series of objective qualities into subjective ones. The world changes not just in its forms but in its feelings and we can acknowledge that these two dimensions are always linked.[18]

As the boundary between people and things is conceptualised as being more fluid, as well as more various and culturally defined, a useful field emerges for the exploration of the links between ‘people, things and ideas’ flowing beyond national boundaries.

Figure 17.1: This Latvian national dress was made and worn by Guna Kinne (nee Klasons) in Latvia, Germany and Australia in the second half of the twentieth century.
Figure 17.1: This Latvian national dress was made and worn by Guna Kinne (nee Klasons) in Latvia, Germany and Australia in the second half of the twentieth century.

Photo: Dean McNicoll, National Museum of Australia: nma.img-ci20051391-030-wm-vs1.tif.

[1] Letter from Guna Kinne to Jerzy Zubrzycki, 1 February 1989, National Museum of Australia (hereafter NMA), File 89/63, f2.

[2] Letter from Sally Fletcher to Guna Kinne, 7 March 1989, NMA, File 89/63, ff 4–5.

[3] Letter from Guna Kinne to Sally Fletcher, 23 March 1989, NMA, File 89/63, ff 6–10.

[4] See Macdougall, David 2006, The Corporeal Image: Film, ethnography and the senses, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, p. 6. We have explored this idea in detail in Wehner, Kirsten and Sear, Martha (forthcoming), ‘Engaging the material world: object knowledge and Australian Journeys’, in Sandra Dudley (ed.), Museums and Materiality.

[5] See, for example, Curthoys, Ann and Lake, Marilyn 2004, Connected Worlds: History in transnational perspective, ANU E Press, p. 5.

[6] Sheller, Mimi and Urry, John 2006, ‘The new mobilities paradigm’, Environment and Planning A, vol. 38, pp. 207–26.

[7] Gosden, Chris and Marshall, Yvonne 1999, ‘The cultural biography of objects’, World Archaeology, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 169–78; Kopytoff, Igor 1986, ‘The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process’, in Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in cultural perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 64–91.

[8] Gosden and Marshall, ‘The cultural biography of objects’, p. 177.

[9] Gosden, C. 2005, ‘What do objects want?’ Journal of Archeological Method and Theory, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 193-211, esp. 193.

[10] Ibid., p. 194.

[11] Gosden and Marshall, ‘The cultural biography of objects’, p. 173.

[12] Gosden, ‘What do objects want?’, p. 197.

[13] Ibid., p. 194.

[14] Hoskins, Janet 2006, ‘Agency, biography and objects’, in C. Tilley, W. Keane, S. Kuchler, M. Rowlands and P. Spitzer, Handbook of Material Culture, Sage Publications, London, p. 75.

[15] Appadurai, Arjun 1986, 'Introduction', and Kopytoff, Igor 1986, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,’ in Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things, pp. 3-63 and 64-91. See also Tilley, C. 2006, 'Objectification', in Tilley, Keane, Kuchler, Rowlands and Spitzer, Handbook of Material Culture, pp. 60-73.

[16] See, for example, Gosden, C. and Knowles, C. 2001, Collecting Colonialism: Material culture and colonial change in Papua New Guinea, Berg, Oxford.

[17] Gosden, ‘What do objects want?’, p. 209.

[18] Ibid., p. 209.