Thanks to a generous student bursary from the Design History Society, I was able to attend the DHS 2018 Annual Conference, Design and Displacement. As a Material Culture scholar, the panels I chose to attend primarily focused on designed objects, and the ways in which objects play an important role in the lives of refugees and other displaced people. The first panel I attended was Objects and Meaning, one of the first concurrent sessions. Penny Wolfson’s paper, “The ‘Meaning of Things,’ for the Displaced: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Objects, and Loss,” focused on an interview she had with Csikszentmihalyi in the summer of 2017. Although Csikszentmihalyi is most well-known for his work on flow, a kind of hyper focused mental state, my first encounter with his work was with The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (1981), a book he wrote with Eugene Rochberg-Halton that located the value of objects in people’s homes and argued for a more nuanced understanding of the importance of objects to identity. Wolfson’s paper engages with this aspect of Csikszentmihalyi’s work, and on the way the meaning of objects changes when they are displaced, either because they were left behind by their owner, or because they were taken when the owner themselves is displaced. The paper pointed out that when refugees leave a place, they take the possessions that have a practical immediate need, like food, money, or clothing, or have a heightened personal attachment. The things themselves matter, she suggests, because while “we save them, sometimes they save us.”
A number of speakers also discussed the way that the objects themselves were displaced and functioned differently in their new environments. Gökhan Mura’s talk, “Immigrant Gifts: A Material Manifestation of Immigrant Narratives” focused on objects “made special” (to borrow Ellen Dissanayake’s term) or made “exotic” because they were transported across borders. When family members living as expats in Germany brought commercial goods back to Turkey on visits home, these goods were “made exotic” by their transportation and scarcity. Mura defines these good as “Industrial Exotic,” designed objects that were typically inexpensive commodity goods like bar soap that were transformed by their journey, and told stories about the gift giver and the lives they were living far from their place of origin. These objects took on additional meaning by their dislocation, making them exotic to the family members who received them as gifts. These objects were a kind of heightened souvenir family members living in Germany would purchase and bring home to Turkey as a souvenir of their ex-pat lives.
Elizabeth Kramer’s paper “The Vietnam Tour Jacket: From Commemoration to Commercialization” also played with this theme. As Kramer points out, the original jackets were commemorative garments, popular with servicemen leaving Occupied Japan. Later, the jackets became popular at ports across Asia, and were popularized by servicemen commemorating their service in Korea and Vietnam. Later, during the second half of the twentieth century, Kramer points out that tour jacket was popularized as a “symbol of rebellion” and an object worn by members of youth subcultures. However, Kramer suggests that recently these jackets have been commercialized and draw on a sense of imagined heritage. These jackets are similarly “exotic,” in Mura’s sense of the Industrial Exotic, in part because their commercial commodity status is part of their origin. Looking at these objects through Mura’s framework expands both the framework itself—which Mura uses to examine objects purchased and carried across borders back to a home place—and the way we examine the object. The souvenir jacket, reimagined as an “authentic” object and marketed to today’s consumer, is a different kind of Industrial exotic. The contemporary examples Kramer explored in her paper are exotic not because they are made overseas, as much of the clothing sold in the United States is made overseas, but because they are mass produced commodities that evoke an exotic past rather than a global presence.
Finally, Anne Hilker’s presentation, “The Presence of Displacement: Object Deposit at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial,” on the role of objects left at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was a fitting conclusion to the themes of the conference. Hilker’s presentation was based on her work for the catalog for Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place, on exhibition at the Bard Graduate Gallery. The paper engaged with the idea of memorials functioning as active presences in the landscape in which they’re placed. She argued that other monuments around the Mall in Washington, D.C., as well as monuments in other locations, like the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and the memorial in remembrance of the Oklahoma City bombing are animated and actively engage with the landscape and the public because of the way they are designed. The 9/11 fountains, for example, are in conversation with visitors and with the landscape itself. In contrast, the Vietnam Wall is a static, inactive presence. It simply exists, mirroring the landscape around it and the visitors that look at it. However, every day, objects are left in offering at the Vietnam War memorial by visitors. Hilker suggested that these items function as a secular form of ex-votos, the small offering objects left at religious shrines. These objects force the memorial to be an active presence in the landscape, something that the Vietnam Memorial, a static reflective stone wall, does not do on its own.
At the close of the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Met’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” On display were several statuary vestments, garments used to dress devotional statues of the Virgin Mary. These objects blend together the themes of the conference. They are displaced from their typical locations within sanctified spaces. Placed within the confines of the museum, they are exotic objects among other exotic objects, but as garments for the divine they remain separate from those meant for human figures. DHS: 2018 brought these themes into relief, and widened the discussion of the intersection between design, displacement, and our understanding of objects.