Monthly Archives: December 2006

Material Connexion

Haidy Geismar, NYU
Material Connexion is a “material library” based in New York, Cologne, Bangkok, and Milan. The Library houses over 3,500 new and innovative materials representing eight categories: polymers, glass, ceramics, carbon-based materials, cement-based materials, metals, natural materials and natural material derivatives. It is a resource for designers, architects, and so on, to touch materials, assess their viability in new projects, learn about new technologies and techniques.
Click here to download an article about the library from Dwell Magazine: Download file (.pdf)
However, these materials are oddly decontextualised in this setting, with its overt focus on technology. For instance, one of the success stories cited on the website highlights the capability of materials to be redefined through the process of product design. The example concerns beauty company Aveda’s search for a new cosmetic packaging for the product Uruku which “draws inspiration and ingredients from the cosmetic practices of an indigenous South American tribe. Aveda’s environmental concerns impelled it to look for a cosmetic packaging solution created entirely from recycled materials.” With the help of Material Connexion, Aveda discovered a post-industrial polypropelyne used primarily in outdoor applications such as outdoor decking for their new lipstick tubes. The vegetable fibers that lent it its strength also gave the polymer a “pleasing, earthy texture.” So, the inspiration of generic “south american tribe” has been linked to a cutting edge material, which in some ways itself becomes invisible (or invisibly associated with an indigenous South American tribe). This could be seen as a form of reverse engineering, in which a form is redefined very much through its inherent materiality.
Aveda won praise for its vanguard effort to lessen the negative impact of cosmetic packaging on the environment. In 2003, the Uruku packaging won the International Package Design Award “Cosmetic Category Leader,” which was given in conjunction with the Health and Beauty America show. But the exact nature of the material remains unacknowledged…

The Materiality of the Funeral of King Tupou IV of Tonga

Dr. Fanny Wonu Veys, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, Metropolitan Museum of Art
In September 2006, I worked closely with the Tonga Traditions Committee, whose employees were recording the best they could all the events pertaining to the funeral of King Tupou IV. King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga, the fourth king in the modern dynasty of Tongan rulers died after forty-one years of reign on 10 September in a New Zealand hospital. Through genealogy, Tupou IV embodied the three royal lines of Tu’i Tonga, Tu’i Kanokupolo and Tu’i Takalaua.








Thursday 21 September 2006. Catholic schoolchildren bring
dozens of cakes for presentation
Monday 18 September 2006. People from Niuatoputapu prepare
to enter the palace grounds with barkcloth, fine mats, and a basket. Everyone
is wearing the appropriate attire for funerals which consists of black clothing,
a ragged mat with a pandanus strip belt.

From the day the king’s body arrived on Tongan soil (13 September 2006) different funeral rites were performed. The activities included ceremonial presentations; lotu, prayer vigils; takip?, all-night wakes when palm sheath torches are lit around the palace grounds; ha’amo, presentations of kava, pigs, and cooked foods in palm leaf basket which are carried on sticks over the shoulder; fei’umu, cooking of food in an underground oven; taumafa kava, royal kava drinking ceremony; and of course the different aspects of the interment ceremony itself that took place on 19th September.
Tongan funerals, named putu or me’a faka’eiki – the honorific term used for chiefly funerals – have been discussed in literature from different perspectives. Instead of looking at how funerals reinforce kinship ties (Kaeppler 1978) or what the effective cost is of the objects exchanged (James 2002), I will concentrate on materiality of the ceremonial presentation made before and on the first few days after the funeral.
Most of the presentations took place on the palace grounds under the marquis set up to the left of the palace. Members of the royal family would sit cross-legged with their backs to the sea and facing the group of people performing the presentations. The members of the presenting group (a church group, a village, an island, nation or a government department) positioned themselves in a semi-circle facing the sea and the members of the royal family. These presentations followed a set scheme. First the chief’s attendant or mat?pule would briefly present the objects. These included kava, root crops, live pigs and half-cooked pigs, mats, yams, taro, tapioca, barkcloth, mats, baskets, flower garlands and flower baskets, coconut oil, cakes, bead spreads, crisps, fruit, sweets and large screens named tapu, made out of mats, barkcloth or flowers which will ultimately serve as grave decoration. Then all the products of agriculture and animal husbandry are enumerated by a mat?pule and counted one by one, by touching every pig, kava plant, and palm leaf food basket. After this, a woman enumerates the list of all the other objects that are being presented. The quantity, length and name of the mats and barkcloths is stated. The goods the woman enumerated, are spread out in the circle formed by the giving party and receiving party. No one physically counted these goods. The mat?pule of the presenting group, finally gives a speech and a dried piece of kava root is presented. The mat?pule of the receiving party reciprocates with a closing speech after which people pay their respects to the members of the royal family presiding the presentation.
This descriptive piece of writing is preliminary to a more analytical article focusing on the materiality of the 2006 funeral, and linking it with past funerary practices.
























Wednesday 20 September 2006. Presentation on the first
day after the funeral. There are kava plants in the foreground, and half-cooked
pgs in the background. Women are carrying flower baskets on the right.
Friday 21 September 2006. Presentation of a large tapu
(grave decoration) made of fine mats (kie) and barkcloth (ngatu).
Wednesday 20 September 2006. Presentation of a tapu tupenu,
or grave decoration.
Thursday 21 September 2006. A p’kakala, or ‘flower fence’,
made of freshly cut flowers and leaves, mounted on a background of barkcloth,
is presented by the Catholic schoolchildren.
Monday 18 September 2006. Delegation from Niuatoputapu
with mats and barkcloth.
Thursday 21 September 2006. Presentation of baskets filled
with sweets, fruits, crisps, and coconut oil. A tapu lole (grave decoration)
made with sweets such as Cadbury chocolate, crisps and other sweets. Cakes,
fine mats and bedspreads were also presented on this occasion.

Vik Muniz

Haidy Geismar, NYU
Whilst of course, all art is material culture, Vik Muniz, a Brazilian artist, who I saw in September at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in Chelsea, New York is one of the few contemporary artists whose work resonates profoundly with material culture studies in its own right, without needing the meditation of critical discourse.
Muniz himself outlines the importance of materiality in his own artist’s manifesto:
“Basically, we artists make art so we can evidence the materialization of an idea, to test it in the material world, only in the end to transform it back into actual visual stimuli, making a connection between ourselves and the world we live in” (Vik Muniz, Reflex: a Vik Muniz Primer, 2005, Aperture Foundation, page 22)

For many years, Muniz has playfully engaged with materiality, creating paintings from chocolate, wire, thread, sugar, dust and tomato sauce. His ‘Equivalents’ series played with Alfred Steiglitz’s famous cloud photography by remaking images of clouds, which have often been observed to look like other things (such as Durer’s hands) from cotton wool.

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International Symposium of Arts in Society

Welcome to the website of 2007 International Symposium on the Arts in Society. Held mid way between the annual International Conference on the Arts in Society (held in 2006 in conjunction with the Edinburgh Festivals), we will work in collaboration with New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and its Center for Art and Public Policy. Similar to our full annual conferences, this mid-year Arts Symposium will address a range of critically important themes relating to the arts today. The symposium will run in conjunction with The Armory Show International Art Fair, one of the leading and largest visual art fairs in the world. Conference presenters will include artists and organisers involved in The Armory Show, as well as leading theorists and practitioners from NYU and our International Advisory Board. The symposium itself will serve as an intellectual platform to investigate issues raised by the Armory Show and other international visual arts fairs, with respect to their impact on the art market and issues of inclusivity, innovation, and definitions and frameworks for conceptualising contemporary art through public display. Visual, performing and literary arts will also be central to presentations and topics related to the general theme of the symposium: Arts and Public Reception.
Symposium speakers and performers will include leading contributors in all areas of the arts – artists, curators, writers, theorists and policymakers – as well as papers, colloquia and workshop presentations by artists in all disciplines (visual, performing and literary) and arts researchers. This is a symposium for any person with an interest in, and a concern for, arts practice, arts theory and research, curatorial and museum studies, and arts education in any of its forms and in any of its sites.
The organising committee is currently inviting proposals to present at the 2007 Arts Symposium.
Participants are welcome to submit a presentation proposal either for 30 minute paper, 60 minute workshop, a jointly presented 90 minute colloquium session, or a virtual session. Of these, several sessions will be Crafted Panels or “invited sessions” that are curated or proposed in collaboration with the Conference Director and in keeping with the Symposium theme. We encourage presentation formats that are innovative, such as roundtables, staged dialogues, screenings and performance components. In addition to daily Plenary Sessions, remaining sessions are concurrent or parallel.
Parallel sessions are loosely grouped into streams reflecting different perspectives or disciplines. Each stream also has its own talking circle, a forum for focused discussion of issues.
All details can be found on:

Touch and Object Handling in the Context of Museums

UCL Museums & Collections is running a series of workshops exploring touch and object handling in the context of museums. This series is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The third workshop centres on ‘Touch and memory: the role of reminiscence’ – see details below:
Workshop 3: “Touch and memory: the role of reminiscence”
University College London
Archaeology Lecture Theatre
Friday 5th January, 2007, 10 am – 4 pm

  • Dr. Alberto Gallace, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford

  • Professor Mike Rowlands, Department of Anthropology, University College London
  • Emma Clarke, Head of Audience Development and Communities, Learning and Information Department, British Museum
  • Laura Phillips, Audience Development and Communities, Learning and Information Department, British Museum
  • Bernie Arigho, Director of Reminiscence Research and Development, Age Exchange
    To book a place and/or for further information contact Devorah Romanek on email:

  • Therapeutic approaches to touch: Object handling and hospital patients
    Friday 2 February 2007, Royal London Homeopathic Hospital
  • Knowledge transfer in object handling: with specific reference to disadvantaged or
    underrepresented groups.
    Friday 2 March 2007, British Museum
  • End of project conference: Touch and the value of object handling
    Friday 4 May 2007, University College London

Judy Attfield

It is with great sadness that we have to announce the death of Judy Attfield, one of the pioneers of contemporary material culture studies who did so much to demonstrate the value of this approach. Judy started her academic career within a discipline called design history that was largely devoted to hagiographic accounts of great designers and the history of great designs, both of which almost entirely ignored the wider context of understanding the form and style of the world of goods most people lived with. Thanks to her textbook Wild Things and a series of exemplary studies she transformed Design History into a study of the intimate relationship between populations and the common form and design of mundane material culture. She thereby switched the discipline from a complete disrespect for people other than named designers, into one that starts from an empathetic respect for ordinary lives. More than anyone else she can therefore be credited with the invention of a new contemporary design history that can command a respected position within social science and the humanities, instead of being relegated to the poor sibling of art history.
I first came to know Judy as the external supervisor of her PhD on a history of British furniture, including the Utility furniture that had dominated the period of the last war. There were many revelations in her work, of which the one I best recall is how through patient scholarship she revealed the autonomy of different parts of the furniture commodity chain. Shops selling hand made furniture might market them as exemplary modern industrial forms, while shops selling industrially made furniture might sell them as olde-worlde hand crafts, depending entirely upon what they thought would appeal to the market. Judy’s courage lay in the very topics she then chose. Other design historians would hope for vicarious respect by tackling famous design images, but Judy devoted her time to key papers on topics such as the tufted carpet, or the empty cocktail cabinet. What her work demonstrated was the possibility of a subtle and different history of well enshrined topics such as gender (she wrote several papers on feminist approaches to design history), class and family, through this grounded sensibility to everyday objects and the ironies and paradox of popular taste and desire. These studies culminated in the book Wild Things, surely the single best introduction and exemplification of this new genre of design history studies, and a major advance in material culture studies more generally. This is a classic `must-read’ book.
It is entirely appropriate that her death followed the publication a week earlier of her edited volume of Home Cultures on the topic of kitsch. The fact that unlike any other work on this topic this starts from a respect for otherwise denigrated materials, not from some postmodern or ironic or clever conceit but from a modest humanism, a desire not to judge or patronise but simply pay attention to and create an understanding of all our material culture however it is otherwise labelled and dismissed. This politics of respect is something that was a leitmotif of all her work and is her legacy for the future.
– Daniel Miller

  • Attfield, J 1994 The tufted carpet in Britain: its rise from the bottom of the pile 1952-1970 Journal of Design History 7: 3
  • Attfield, J and Kirkham, P Eds 1995 A View from the Interior, The Womens Press (including her Inside Pram Town: a case study of Harlow House Interiors 1951-1961)
  • Attifeld, J 1997 Design as a practice of modernity. Journal of Material Culture 3: 2
  • Attfield, J Ed. 1999 Utility Reassessed. Manchester University Press
  • Attfield J, 1999, “Bringing modernity home: open-plan in the British domestic interior”, in At Home: An Anthology of Domestic Space Ed. I Cieraad
  • Attfield J 2000 Wild Things. Berg
  • Attfield, J Ed. 2006 Kitsch. Home Cultures 3: 3

»More work by Judy Attfield

Hoarding and Disposal in Tokyo

Fabio Gygi, PhD Student, Anthropology, University College London and University of Tokyo
My project is concerned with accumulation of things, attachment to things and with what psychiatrists call ‘hoarding’. My initial interest was whether by reformulating a psychiatric concern with deviance in terms of material culture, a broader understanding of the relationships people entertain with their possessions could be gained. Hoarding seemed to be an appropriate subject, because a) it required understanding of seemingly irrational behavior (feeling attached to things others consider as ‘rubbish’) and b) because recent anthropological concepts of ownership, possession and attachment and their influence on how we think about things, minds and selves could be put to the test (and put to the test they are…).
While hoarders in psychiatric literature are often described as ‘cannot throw things away’, my fieldwork among inhabitants of gomiyashiki in Tokyo (lit. garbage house, a Japanese topos comparable to the word ‘hoarding’ without however implying a certain category of person) shows that my informants perceive themselves ‘not to want to throw things away’. Instead of translating the figurative disorder of the ‘hoarder’s lair’ into a mental disorder and to read the accumulated things as a pathological symptom of an inner defect, the accumulated things can be conceived of as part of the extended self and thus as inalienable possessions in a sense.

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Thinking Through Things

Daniel Miller, UCL
On Thursday 7th December a book launch was held for a new volume Thinking Through Things. Edited by A Henare, M Holbraad and S Wastell and published by Routledge.
The book is clearly of interest to anyone in material culture studies. The primary theme is concerned with transcending any dualism between things and concepts, for which purpose there is considerable engagement with epistemological and ontological issues. The intention is not to develop a new theory, but rather to affirm an analytical methodology, that anthropologists could utilise to gain insights in their various studies. The inspiration is quite clearly the work of Marilyn Strathern, and the degree to which this clearly represents a cadre of younger scholars working enthusiastically to related themes is testimony to her inspiration at Cambridge. After Strathern the other key influences would be the Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro who has been debating related issues with Strathern at Cambridge. The introduction works through the general concepts surrounding perspectivism that was central to these debates and the degree to which these raise such ontological questions.
The most impressive achievement of the book as a whole is the way these ambitious analytical debates are tied to a constantly high level of scholarship and ethnographic depth that characterise the individual contributions. The papers are much too rich to be constrained within any single theme. For example Amiria Henare’s chapter concerns the interpretive flexibility with which they key treaty that bound the Maori and the colonialists has been dealt with in the subsequent period. She demonstrates how this interpretive flexibility is not something that came from the generic West but is grounded in Maori transformative and dynamic genres. A similar point is made by Wastell through showing that while the envisaging of Western law by the Swazi of Southern Africa as encompassing, was presaged by their notions of divine kingship, this was not an aspect of cultural continuity as conservative. Rather they should be seen as consummate modernists.
Another interesting pair of papers includes a revision of Alfie Gell’s book Art and Agency by James Leach based on research he has conducted on collaborations between artists and scientists in Cambridge. Gell is also employed by Pedersen on shamanist ontologies in Mongolia and in a chapter by the PNG anthropologist Andrew Moutou on switching our conceptualisation of museums from issues of classification to issues of how people conceive of loss (something close to my own current work). Also based in PNG is a sparkling essay by Reed on smoking amongst prisoners in Port Moresby.
The most curious aspect of this book, however, is its first sentence. This states `what would an artefact-oriented anthropology look like, if it were not material culture?’ I found this slightly weird since my own conception of material culture is of a field in which people do not by and large define themselves in a semi-disciplined form, making it quite hard to see it as something one excludes oneself from from. Rather, as one hopes is the case with this weblog, it is more a welcoming and inclusive space for people with shared interests and an eclectic base. The sentence is elaborated upon in the introduction largely by separating out the transcendence of the dualism of thing/concept from that of subjects/objects. Actually I think this is not at all an accurate description of the papers that follow. Several, such as Empson’s paper on Mongolia, seem to me quite clearly exemplifications of the concept of objectification and the way a Strathernian approach to relationships can best be understood through exploring the process of objectification itself which as is clear in Strathern’s own work certainly implicates issues of subjects and objects. But the volume’s introduction does lead to an intriguing result. I felt the fullest exemplification of this desire for separation comes in Holbraad’s paper on the concept of mana which is also applied to a case study of his own fieldwork in which he asserts that one cannot distinguish between the concept of power and the actual powder as used by Cuban diviners. This is expertly done and I wholeheartedly recommend the chapter in question. But what intrigues me is that here it probably is the case that the degree of focus on this powder/power concept/thing ends up with the author paying relatively little regard to something that has been core in material culture studies which is the being of the Cuban diviner. In other words that appreciating that we have here a rather different kind of `object’ should in turn lead an appreciation that we have a rather different kind of subject.
This then has a paradoxical, but I think highly significant result. The separation from material culture might have been an attempt to preserve a more central social anthropology. But it is clear that by narrowing the brief of the introduction the result (if the authors had actually followed such advice), would have not been to make the book more anthropological but actually less so. As I have argued in my introduction to the book Materiality (2005, Duke University Press), I think we should by now be beyond such issues and one of the most powerful contributions of material culture studies is to try and represent the vanguard of anthropology as a whole. An anthropology that no longer feels any such need to ground itself only in concepts such as society and social relations on the one hand, nor take refuge in cognitive studies on the other, but one that is comfortable with the idea of a prior materiality within which a more specific social anthropology can flourish. In short material culture is not a subset of social anthropology but more the other way around. Material culture is a condition for anthropology itself.
Such a material culture adds to anthropology but subtracts nothing. The problem is that this is a relatively new understanding of anthropology, and while adventurous in some ways these Cambridge anthropologists were quite conservative in others. To be frank, I suspect they chickened out of any direct identification with material culture since they were scared that the term might still have a somewhat lower status than mainstream social anthropology. Something which may reflect their parochialism, since in general I don’t think this is a fear that holds much ground these days. To use the term would not then be a commitment to any particular approach, since again as this weblog shows it is both relaxed and eclectic. It is merely an acceptance that materiality is one of the necessary engagements of a larger anthropology.
Ultimately, however, whether people call themselves material culture or not is of limited interest, what matters is the quality of the work and the quality of the insights. And, whether the authors like it or not, this is a volume of considerable interest and consequence to anyone working in the field of material culture studies, with many exemplary chapters.

Material Religion

Barbara Kirschenblatt Gimblett, NYU
Mitzvah Kinder figurines, right to left: Malkeleh, Moishy, Totty (Father), Mommy, and Baby Chaim. “The ‘Mitzvah Kinder’ has been designed to represent a Yiddishe family in the world of children’s play and imagination. Our charming characters made of soft lightweight rubber, makes them safe, durable and irresistible. So make the ‘Mitzvah Kinder’ part of your family.”
The Working Group on Jews, Media, and Religion at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media is contributing to a special issue of Material Religion dedicated to Jews edited by Jeffrey Shandler and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. The articles in this issue examine the role that material culture plays in the intersection of Jews, media, and religion. Our goal in this endeavor is to explore the range of material culture–the designing, production, dissemination, collecting, inventorying, and use of things–as media in Jewish religious life, past and present, broadly defined. A core concern is the materiality of phenomena as key to understanding their value in Jewish life. Contributors include Judah Cohen (materiality of music), Jeffrey Shandler and Aviva Weintraub (December Dilemma greeting cards), Jeremy Stolow (“Holy Pleather,” on the materiality of books produced by the Orthodox publishing house ArtScroll), Chava Weissler (material culture and gift shops of the Jewish renewal movement), and the volume will also include a virtual roundtable discussion of the new Jewish Children’s Museum, a project of Lubavitcher Hasidim, in Crown Heights, New York.
» For more information about the working group on Jews, Media and Religion, see