Objects and Humanity

I spent three days last week in Salt Lake City at the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting, to accept a national award for an interior preservation project that was planned and executed long before I actually started working as Executive Director at the House. I was delighted to be there, of course, and even more delighted to have our Curator and Director of Education, Leo E. Landis, join me to receive this honor in front of a large and enthusiastic gathering of Leo’s museum and history colleagues from around the country, since he’s the person who really deserved it. The trip also gave Leo the chance to do some original research at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, where we learned some interesting things about Carl Weeks’ days in “Mormon Dixie” (Southwestern Utah) as a young man, but we’ll save those for another blog post later!

I participated in various plenary and breakout sessions during the AASLH conference, one of which had to do with the importance (or lack thereof) of objects when it comes to interpreting history. There was a healthy discussion about whether historic objects have intrinsic value in and of themselves, or whether they need to be linked to specific people or places to gain historic resonance. I really sit on the razor’s edge in this argument, as I sense that some objects are intrinsically valuable simply because they are beautiful or haunting or cool or unique, while some objects gain value only when they are connected via specific personal or physical associations. I guess the real challenge, for me, is figuring out which object are which, and why. And I would probably defer to the philosophers on that one.

As part of the discussion in Utah, I suggested in our group that connecting objects to people and places in history may sometimes be a pointless enterprise if those objects, people and places are not also somehow connected to relevant contemporary concepts, understandings and ideas. At Salisbury House, we’re trying to use our social media initiatives to accomplish this past-to-present connection via objects in our collections. At staff meeting every Monday, we look at what’s going on in the world around us, and then try to tap our collections to find unique Salisbury House-specific objects that link our founding collectors (Carl and Edith Weeks) with current issues of impact and import.

My last blog post here about Banned Books Week was one such attempt to frame a story with modern relevance, using specific objects that were once considered taboo, that were collected by specific people at a specific time in years gone by, and that remain in our collection today, for the cultural and educational benefit of the public. During the course of the week, Leo and I found various banned or suppressed books and posted about them on our Facebook Page . . . which you should follow, if you aren’t already!

While it was really neat for us to find and share some truly incredible art works and early editions of banned, bowdlerized, censored or suppressed books, the most meaningful find for me last week was Carl Weeks’ copy of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, not for the book itself, but because of Carl’s penciled notes within its margins. The text of Man and Superman clearly meant a great deal to him, as the book is filled with exclamation points, underlines, checks, brackets, and other notes attempting to distill the deeper meaning within and beyond the words on the page.

I provide a visual sample taken from Carl’s copy of Man and Superman, which bears his signature in its inner cover, and the date “8/17/04,” presumably when he purchased it. (This was before the play made its actual theatrical debut in May 1905). The page in question is taken from the controversial and often-censored third act, and it is worth noting that Man and Superman was not performed in its uncensored entirety until 1915.

Sample page from Carl Weeks’ annotated copy of George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” circa 1905.

In 1904, Carl was a 28-year old single man, actively courting his wife-to-be Edith (who had far more formal education than he did) and working with his brother at his mother’s family’s drug company. He had experienced some misdiagnosed health difficulties and some painful surgeries as a result (that’s what led him to Utah). I see, in his marks on these pages, a young man at a particularly tumultuous time in his life, seeking to better understand and make sense of both the seen and the unseen worlds around him. I feel I know him better, even though he died before I was born, for having seen these and so many objects that he purchased, protected and passed on in his lifetime.

I am reminded, in seeing this particular facet of Carl’s collections, of a quote I have always loved about the study of the humanities:

Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason. — “The Humanities in American Life,” Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities (1980).

I am fortunate to come to work daily in a building that houses the most extraordinary collection of primary humanities-based objects with which I have ever had the chance to interact . . . which is really saying something given some of the amazing collections I’ve worked with in years past. I believe one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Salisbury House Foundation must be to use this collection of objects to help others — scholars, students and non-academics alike — make “moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of [the] world” by deploying these resources to the teaching and celebration of the humanities as a vital pursuit for our city, state and nation. Through his objects, I can see a young Carl Weeks trying to answer that big humanities question — what does it mean to be human? — and I relish the thought of having his collection assist generation after generation in their own efforts to understand.

Toward this end, we are in the planning phases of a collaborative program with several other humanities-based institutions around the state of Iowa, and will soon announce a Spring 2013 event that will serve as a pilot/kick-off program for a state-wide celebration of the humanities, centered at Salisbury House. We hope you will follow this blog and our Facebook page to keep abreast of this exciting project as it develops, and to learn more about the many incredible objects (and the places and people with which they are associated) at Salisbury House, and how they give meaning, substance, perspective or resonance to so many important topics today.

About J. Eric Smith
Nonprofit mover and shaker, profligate writer and picture snapper, inveterate maker of lists, and champion music geek. Hiya!

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