Blocks of red, pink, cream, tan, and brown alternate at intervals in the Jacob’s Ladder Pattern Quilt on display in the Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection of Early American Art. Like many objects and belongings held in museum collections, this quilt has no immediate stories of makers, users, or early preservers. Sometime in the “early American” past, a once-known creator—likely a woman or group of women—conceptualized, pieced, stitched together, stuffed, and then quilted the textile, and handled and cared for it. The strong diagonal lines that lead a viewer’s eyes from left to right across the quilted fabric once invited a finger’s trace—from maker to user to art collector; all would have interacted with the piece. The pattern evokes a multiplicity of routes (as does the variability within any path)—a single line switches fabrics and colors as it winds upward and across the quilt.
Objects, pathways, afterlives: These terms resonate through the quilt’s twisting ladders and current placement in The Huntington’s gallery space, and they come up again and again in discussions about material things. To reflect on the past, present, and future of these materials and their meanings, we are holding a conference titled “Objects, Pathways, and Afterlives: Tracing Material Cultures in Early America” in The Huntington’s Rothenberg Hall on April 21–22. This gathering brings together scholars and practitioners to reflect on the historical and present-day meanings of tangible materials. Equally important, it centers the communities who make, interact with, value and care for, and interpret these significant materials and the many stories, memories, and knowledge associated with them.
As conference co-convener Tiya Miles has written, “material objects are hooks, nets, and anchors” that offer a means to access past experiences as well as to sustain and to memorialize bonds of kinship and community that stretch to the future. Embedded within an object are glimpses of histories and possibilities, individual and collective, as well as prompts for conversations and paths for healing and reconciliation, paths that often require a community to become perceptible. By asking participants to engage with The Huntington’s Fielding Collection, we ground conversation in a specific museum’s holdings, yet ask questions that resonate across and between the disciplines and fields of American studies, anthropology, art and architectural history, Black studies, English, history, material culture studies, museum studies, and Native American and Indigenous studies.
A major goal of this gathering is to identify new pathways in American material cultures. The conference defines its terrain broadly in terms of subject matter, hemispheric geography, and period, ranging roughly from 1500 to 1860 but also extending well before and after that. Participants will engage in holistic thinking about the existing fault lines in “object study” and issues of power, absence, representation, labor, hybridity, and materiality.
These issues have renewed urgency as Indigenous and African diasporic histories, objects and belongings, knowledge systems, and present-day communities are being transformed through the development and implementation of new methods of research, learning, collaboration, and caretaking; expanded definitions of the field; and assessing potentials for individuals, institutions, and collectivities to pursue recovery and reparation.
As critical reckonings with the enduring legacies of white supremacy and settler colonialism that shaped early America continue to impact communities today, conference participants will seek to create a space for collective learning and to ask: How do we do this work? How do we interpret this work with and for multiple publics? How can we better engage younger community members and college students with materials collected by museums? And what throughlines can museums elucidate between historical materials and contemporary Indigenous and African American artists and knowledge keepers?
Support for this conference has been generously provided by the William French Smith Endowment, the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.
Christine DeLucia is an associate professor of history at Williams College.
Tiya Miles is the Michael Garvey Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Scott Manning Stevens is an associate professor of English and the director of Native American Studies at Syracuse University.
Jennifer Van Horn is an associate professor of history and art history at the University of Delaware.