Posted by: elskie118 | December 14, 2020

The pleasure of observation

Freshman year, I was in a writing class that focused on descriptions of images, and just  how to write the thousand words that a picture is worth. In this class we went to visit the Skinner museum that is on campus, and I really recommend visiting at least once. When I was there, it struck me that Skinner Museumwas truly a room of wonder designed to make you awed.

The curiosities, baubles, and pieces from different cultures and geographical locations keeps you jumping from one item to the next. Each little piece had unique visual qualities, but your attention was only held briefly before something else caught your eye. It was almost a little overwhelming at first to be absorbing the details of the room and find every intricate piece was so different from the ones beside it made it easy to give up on trying to understand them individually. Even though there were sections that were organized, such as the wall of minerals, fossils and coral

 it was also hard to put most of the pieces into groups as many of them were randomly assorted or loosely connected.  

Additionally since there were few labels that gave contextual information about the pieces, this felt like a museum where the purpose was to just look at the objects and be baffled by it, then move on to the next curiosity. There wasn’t the quality of learning and analyzing that is present in museums like the MHC art museum. One object I saw had confounded me as to what it was, and I had stared at its hinges and crossed pieces for a long time before giving up and settling on the idea that perhaps it was a strange umbrella or eccentric lamp shade. Later in our class discussions and a quick search on the five college collections database, I learned it was called a Swift, and it was a 19th century textile working tool used for winding yarn, made from marine ivory and whale bones. I even went further and watched videos of people using modern swifts so I could guess how it opened and what the person who owned this would be doing as they used it. This swift would have been identifiable by anyone in Skinner’s time that had used or seen a swift before, but its appeal was its elegance and ivory that would only have been found in a wealthy person’s possession. 

 Its purpose wasn’t to educate people on swifts but to show that this fabulous swift existed and it was on display like an art piece just for viewing. Much of the museum feels like it is simply meant to be viewed and shown off. This reminded me of our discussion on the Great Exhibition, and how at the time,  it was one of the first of several world fairs that were meant to exhibit culture and industry in an exorbitant display of wealth and prestige. Both the Skinner Museum and the Great Exhibition share the common appeal of the pleasure of observing. 

The people attending the exhibition or seeing Skinner’s collection are both tempted by the same apple, the desire to be wowed and entertained. And not only are the items that are on display very impressive and amazing to look at, the experience and the fact that they are being displayed at all adds a significant amount of impressiveness to the object. Many objects are in display cases, and specifically in the Skinner museum, you cannot touch anything. The distance that is necessary for these displays to have heightened enjoyment presents an interesting paradox of the human mind, where the anticipation is what makes the object so attractive, rather than the physical attraction or need for the object. This is very similar to the satisfaction you get after window shopping. You haven’t bought anything, but it was so enjoyable to just see everything, and think about how great it would be to have that new sweater. Where if you actually buy the product, you might realize it isn’t as good as you thought it was. Pretending that you had the object, imaging those new boots, and the possibility of achieving that kind of personal display can give a sense of positivity for the future because by experiencing such displays, it occurs to you that it is possible. But you still don’t get to buy anything. This pleasure of observing can also be seen in the architecture of the great exhibition.

from these images you cannot specifically see all of the wonders that were available for viewing, but you can see the grand space that they were in. The space itself is grand and enormous, and  again with the mall comparison, simply being in an area that must be traveled to adds to the longing and the enchantment of visiting. The designing of the crystal palace for the exhibition was done as a competition, with the goal of being large and grande enough for such a spectacle. 

There was also the danger of presenting objects from different cultures in a way that they are considered oddities instead of pieces of cultural value. The way that the Great Exhibition mistreated the exhibits that were not from britain was an intentional way to bring up England’s elite image of themselves. The fact that there was a separation between the English exhibit and the “foreign” exhibits, all categorized together in something specifically “not britain” shows the ability to control an items display will change its value and perception. In the Skinner museum, many of the pieces that Skinner brought back were from other countries and would express the  different values a culture had in its materials and designs. The shinto shrine would hold more value to the Japanese, who were accustomed to shrines and would be aware of its sacred purposes, more than someone who was from a different culture that didn’t share those values. Displaying a piece from another culture like this has the potential to alienate the culture and putting it in a category of being ‘abnormal’ because it is associated with other odd or unusual pieces.  The risk of displaying it improperly could lead to the assumption that it is unnecessary to show respect to the different values, especially when the museum is more about looking at interesting things rather than learning about them. This is a terrible picture and I’m sorry but I can’t seem to find a better one.

In a different way, the act of displaying can change the perception of familiar objects. The swift was made during a time when people would be wrapping yarn frequently so it had a use, but it was also made out of ivory, making it artistic in the sense that ivory was a luxury at the time. So taking a useful tool and making it out of something only the wealthy could access gives insight into why it was in this museum. The everyday person didn’t have an ivory swift, so the fact that it is in the museum illustrates the societal value of ivory and how amazed someone would be if they saw one. But it also causes the viewers to be distanced from the item, it was too extravagant to be functional, especially now that its purpose is to be looked at and displayed instead of used. 

The attraction to looking at objects seems a little fantastical when it comes to the exhibitions and places of wealth display.  It is easy to manipulate and lure people with what is basically the promise of a good time. Like a siren call, the attraction and the enchantment of being separated from the magic in front of you make you want it more. Both the Skinner museum and the great exhibition allow you to get close, but not to touch the commodities and oddities that are only separated from you by a glass case.


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