For those of us who work with material culture, items which have survived through the centuries (or even descriptions of objects which are no longer extant) can provide a valuable way of accessing the emotions of the past. Today we are familiar with the idea that objects can have ‘sentimental’ value; we can think of things like wedding rings, a grandmother’s china cup and saucer, the snowdome bought on a first overseas holiday. These items often have emotional resonance far beyond their monetary value because they evoke and symbolise relationships and memories. The loss of such objects can produce intense sorrow, clearly visible on news reports of house fires or floods. Being insured may make a financial difference in these instances but it doesn’t do much to ease the suffering of those who have lost irreplaceable belongings.
Objects may also carry negative emotions, and the emotional value of an object may change over time, or be different for different people. The same wedding ring which once symbolised love may come to evoke grief or bitterness if the marriage has ended; a religious symbol may provide comfort or a sense of identity to a believer or provoke anger in one who vehemently opposes that belief. Nor need the emotional value of an object be only personal. Some items have emotional value of national and international significance – the Eureka Flag or the Ashes, for example. Other objects, such as relics or talismans, may have an emotional value related to beliefs in supernatural powers, and are valued for their ability to perform miracles, heal the sick or provide spiritual or physical protection. Emotional value may also be subject to change as political or spatial contexts for items change, as, for example, a statue is moved from a sacred space to a museum; or as public attitudes change, so that the convict manacles which might once have invoked a sense of safety for non-convicts evoke horror or pity for a modern viewer.
Examining historical objects can allow insights into the emotional lives of the people who made, owned, used or gave them. Information about their emotional value may be preserved in documentary evidence, such as letters or inventories, or it may be apparent from the ways such items have been used, if they are worn on the body, perhaps, or buried with the dead. Evidence of emotional value may be preserved as part of rituals, such as religious or political processions, designed to produce mass emotions; or it might be embodied in the item itself, in the dirt ingrained into a specific part of a manuscript page, or the sumptuous reliquary made to encase a holy object.
The Melbourne node of the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions will host a one day symposium on Thursday 14 March 2013, convened by Dr Sarah Randles and Dr Stephanie Downes, to consider the material culture of the medieval and early modern periods and the way it interacts with the history of emotions. There will be papers by Sue Broomhall, Jacqueline Van Gent, Diana Barnes, Helen Hickey, Alicia Marchant, and Sarah Randles. We’re looking forward to a lively and stimulating day of discussion! Please see the flyer below and click through to RSVP online, or send an email to either of the convenors.
Posted by Sarah Randles