Everyday objects – and their role in understanding history – explored in Chester partnership.

Posted on 22nd October 2018

An academic from the University of Chester has been awarded a grant to research the role that everyday objects have played in helping to understand (and shape) history.

Handling Medieval Shoes
Handling Medieval Shoes

Dr Katherine Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University, together with Dr Leah Clark, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the Open University, are examining how changes took place in history, in relation to the world of goods; the role material objects play in social life, and how any evident ‘wear and tear’ can help explain how and where historical objects were used.

The project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) network grant and is called ‘Mobility of Objects across Boundaries 1000-1700’ (MOB). Dr Wilson and Dr Clark are working with Elizabeth Montgomery of the Grosvenor Museum in Chester. The starting point of the project has been key objects from an under-explored collection housed there. Using the collection, they are bringing together a network of art historians, historians, archaeologists, literary scholars, digital humanists and museum curators to examine these selected objects from the 700 year period, with an emphasis on mobility.

The first workshop was held at the Grosvenor Museum Chester over two days in September and examined chests, shoes and pilgrim badges (from sites of pilgrimage) from the Museum collection. The next, due to be held in March, will consider a hare tile and a key from the collection, as a starting point. The tile of three hares was modelled on a Chinese motif from Dunhuang, but appeared in a variety of locations across Europe, from stained glass windows to floor tiles.

Dr Wilson said: “We are really excited about the prospect of working with a range of different disciplines to explore these everyday objects within a theme of mobility. We feel that one of the strengths of the project is the hands-on approach, with real artefacts from the important Grosvenor Collection in Chester.”

One definition for a 'mob' in the Oxford English Dictionary is 'a group of people in the same place or with something in common.' MOB as a project takes this idea of a gathering to include not only people but things. Objects travelled across geographic, political, religious, linguistic, class and cultural boundaries continuously in the period 1000 to 1700. Through their mobility, objects came into contact with a wide range of individuals and with other things, giving rise to the distribution and transfer of motifs, ideas, and knowledge.

Dr Wilson added: “These objects were produced in multiples, and so were central to the everyday lives of individuals living in the period 1000 to 1700, but they were also extremely mobile. For example, shoes allowed people to move across thresholds, from public into private spaces, from secular to religious spaces. Chests moved possessions across urban streets and into the domestic sphere, while pilgrim badges were worn on the body but travelled with those who wore them. The tile of three hares reveals how images could travel and be translated in different ways, while keys reveal the way in which objects were stored or locked up, harnessing mobility. Looking closely at the objects themselves can also reveal fascinating traces of possession and circulation, from shoes that show wear and tear of the user’s feet, to the marks on a chest, which indicate transport, such as jostling in a carriage.”

Dr Clark said: “The network will allow a group of international interdisciplinary scholars to examine these objects and share their different disciplinary approaches, as well as to establish future directions for studies involving the mobility of material culture. We see the range of expertise and different perspectives as an important aspect of the project, and we hope that this will open up some really interesting conversations, conclusions and new insight about this time period, which we intend to publish as an academic publication. We will also share our findings with the wider public through the Open Arts Objects films and our involvement with schools.”

In order to make the findings of the network available to everyone with an interest in objects from the time period, MOB will connect the Grosvenor Museum objects examined by the network to Europeana: https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en  which is one of the most important cultural heritage digital initiatives worldwide, and which participates with more than 3,500 cultural institutions and contains more than 45 million items. This will allow anyone to compare the objects from the Grosvenor collection to hundreds of similar objects contained in thousands of different collections across Europe.

In addition, the objects examined by MOB will be featured in short films, as part of the Open Arts Objects project, hosted on the Open Arts Archive (Open University) http://www.openartsarchive.org/open-arts-objects. These will be accessible to the public and will be used to support teaching in schools.

There is also a website which will contain the resources produced by the project as well as summaries of the international and interdisciplinary network meetings: https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/

Anyone wishing to find out more about the project, including schools, can contact the team on: k.wilson@chester.ac.uk; leah.clark@open.ac.uk