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Can a single piece of material culture represent the American experience of the Great Depression?

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Lange, D., photographer. (1936) Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. California Nipomo Nipomo. San Luis Obispo County United States, 1936. March. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017762891/.

Exhibitions as a genre rely on representational history; they rely on an object or a constrained collection to represent a much larger set of ideas. Following my study of exhibitions on the Great Depression, I have at times been asked if there is a single object, person, image or event that might best represent the American experience of the Great Depression. The 90th anniversary of the Wall Street Crash, a key event in the onset of the Depression, seems a fitting occasion to once again reflect on this question. My answer is yes, but the object is not one that anyone expects and it is not one that I’ve ever actually found in an exhibition on the Great Depression.

When the National Museum of American History was being renovated (2006-2008) the Smithsonian Institution staged a ‘Treasures’ exhibition. Within that exhibition, the case on the Great Depression held Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, the radio mic from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chats’, and substitute currency made of shells. Certainly a strong argument could be made for either of the first two iconic objects taking on the mantle of THE Depression-era material/visual culture.

Radios have been a regular, almost omnipresent inclusion in the exhibitions on the Depression that I’ve analysed, and with good reason. Radios can be used to interpret a range of narratives for museum audiences.  For example, during the Great Depression, radio was the conduit for reassurances sought and offered through the ‘Fireside Chats’ and the soap operas alike. The popularity of shows such as Amos’n’Andy, in which stereotypical black characters were played by white actors in a form of audio blackface, provides insight into the racism inherent in American society at the time.  But within an exhibition a radio must be turned on or explained to fully convey its power. It lacks the silent gravitas of the FSA photographs.

So perhaps Lange’s Migrant Mother is a better choice. Certainly it is a recognizable, emotional Depression moment captured by a skilled artist, who, at the time, was employed by one of the largest federal relief efforts in history. Yet even Migrant Mother and the other FSA images come laden with the weight of decades of being repurposed, reframed, recut.

There is a strong argument that rather than adopting a single iconic object, it is better to embrace the juxtaposition found in the best exhibitions and the dialectic between objects: a photograph, a radio broadcast, a soup-kitchen kettle, plans from a New Deal housing project, a union badge, a Federal Theatre playbill, a copy of the Grapes of Wrath or Tobacco Road. All of these have been used in combination to great effect in various exhibitions on the era.  Yet, despite the fact that it is yet to appear in any exhibition I have visited, I believe there remains one potential object that more fully captures America during the Great Depression.

Conducting the research on museum exhibitions involved travelling from California to Michigan, to New York, to Washington D.C., to Seattle.  All these flights, bus rides and train trips in turn spawned numerous brief conversations with temporary travelling companions. The exchanges usually began with “What brings you to…?” Upon hearing mention of the Great Depression, a surprising number related that their grandmother, or uncle, or next-door-neighbor had lived through the Depression, and for years afterward kept an ever-growing ball of string. Small pieces were collected and preserved, with little concern to color or weave, as insurance against some ill-defined, ill-articulated future disaster.

As bad a crisis as the Great Depression proved to be, for the majority of Americans, it did not result homelessness, or breadlines, or a job with WPA. But it did entail a pervasive sense  of uncertainty and vulnerability and a fear that one could be next. Even as the crisis seemed to ebb, there was a fear that the effects could spread further and devour those homes, those workplaces, as yet untouched. These balls of twine, hidden in kitchen pantries and workbench drawers are the material culture of the lasting effects of uncertainly, of fear, of exposure to risk and of attempts, however small, to mitigate that exposure.  As such, even more than the radio, or the FSA images or a hundred other powerful objects, these are quintessential objects of the American experience of the Great Depression.

Dr Meighen Katz’s research interests include urban history, architectural conservation, built heritage, transgressive women & visual culture.  Currently a Heritage Assessments Advisor for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, she formerly served as the Ian Potter Museum of Art Grimwade Curator, and lectured at several universities in Melbourne, Australia. Her book, Narratives of Vulnerability in Museums (Routledge) was published in 2019.

Tags : memorymuseumsThe Great Depression
Meighen Katz

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