Research Seminar Review: Investigating Objects: How Museum Icons Are Born, Alima Bucciantini

By Amy Jane Barnes

The second half of the this academic year's Research Seminar Programme kicked off this week with an engaging presentation by Alima Bucciantini, a second-year PhD student from the University of Edinburgh.

Alima began by positing the question, if museums exist because of objects, do objects exist because of museums? She went on to describe how individual objects come to acquire greater symbolic meaning than their own intrinsic material value, thus becoming icons.

Using as her theoretical basis Walter Benjamin's 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Alima described how the authenticity of an object has as much to do with the meanings ascribed to it, as the integrity of its material form or provenance. To illustrate this argument she brought into the discussion a number of case studies from both the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) and Smithsonian Institute. The first of these, Charles Stewart's silver travelling canteen, saved for the Scottish nation by means of a public appeal, became an icon of Scottish national heritage despite doubts over its authenticity or provenance (doubts which, in time, were shown to be unfounded) with its acquisition and subsequent display in the new National Museum of Scotland - by extension becoming a symbol of Scottishness.

Next up was an example from America, a walking cane first owned by Benjamin Franklin who later presented it to George Washington. A constant feature of exhibitions of American heritage at the Smithsonian, the walking cane came to be associated more closely with Washington, taking on the symbolism of the revolution, its ideals and, thus, the American sense of self. Interestingly, Alima revealed that recently, Franklin's ownership of the cane is beginning to be privileged over the previous Washington-focused narrative, raising interesting questions about the changing meanings and associations of such iconic objects over time and in new political and social contexts.

Alima went on to discuss how the reproduction of iconic images such as those detailed above only serves to increase their mystique. Through reproduction the perceived symbolic value of the 'real' object increases. Visitors clamour to experience the original. Reproductions only serve to whet people's appetites, and the institution in which the object is held becomes indelibly associated with the icon; the two feeding off one another. As a case in point, Alima presented the set of Lewis Chessmen in the NMS collection; an example of an object - or group of objects - taking on greater meaning through their display, becoming symbols of Scottish society and culture in the middle ages, and countering images of a period in history previously imagined to be backward and 'uncivilised'. But what gives them value is also their ability to mean so many things to so many people; as Alima stated, in many ways they're like a written text. They can tell many different stories.

Her final example were the pair of Wizard of Oz 'ruby slippers' donated to the Smithsonian Institute in the 1970s. Though not unique, and despite being a mismatched pair, in poor condition, they have taken on a larger symbolic meaning. Initially interpreted in the museum environment as a relic of early Hollywood, they have - over the following decades - taken on different meanings associated with a cult of personality and - perhaps - more crucially, a sense of shared American heritage and set of values; a longing for 'home'. The shoes themselves have become inextricably associated with the Smithsonian, remaining one of the most popular exhibits, feeding a near cultish obsession with Wizard of Oz memorabilia and, thus, proving to be a major draw for visitors. It seems that reproduction doesn't diminish visitors' fervour, it only fuels it. And for the Smithsonian Museum, iconic objects such as these, enable it to advertise itself as being representative of ALL American culture, thus bolstering its own iconic reputation as repository of the nation's values, memories and aspirations.

Alima's seminar was entertaining and thought-provoking from start to finish, which bodes well for her eventual thesis which -based on her presentation today - promises to be an insightful and inspiring addition to the study of objects' roles in contemporary society.


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