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


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.

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Are museums really ‘hiding’ the imperial past?

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In 1903, this postcard was delivered to the engineer’s office in Paddington railway station, sent by a former colleague from Cape Town. The engineers stuck it into their office scrapbook, nicknamed Enginorum, which currently lives in the archives of the National Railway Museum (NRM), where I discovered it whilst on placement planning a fictitious exhibition.

As a student interested in women’s experiences of imperialism, I have long believed that museums should be doing more to engage with the British Empire and I was drawn to the picture immediately. It completely encapsulates the way imperialists interacted with and viewed colonised women.

In writing “The prospective Wives of” the engineers, the sender eroticises these women and assumes their ownership. As this was a prevalent attitude across the Empire, I desperately wanted to include the image in my exhibition.

Given the critiques that museums are ‘hiding’ the imperial past, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all NRM staff I spoke to actively encouraged me to include it in my exhibition. Like me, they all seemed to believe that museums should be more engaged with the British Empire.

Why then had they failed to do so?

In my exhibition planning I was to discover a few possible reasons why. Coming across questions – practical, intellectual, and ethical – that my academic work had rarely forced upon me, issues that left me constantly switching between including the postcard and discarding it.

When presenting my exhibition plan, a colleague asked me ‘What would you do if your funding was halved?’. The main floor of the NRM is open plan, which means it can become quite loud and chaotic when the museum is busy. I decided to build cladded walls around my exhibition so that I could provide a closed-off, quiet space in the museum.

This, I hoped, would give visitors a private area to seriously reflect upon the history of the British Empire. The cladding would likely have been the most expensive part of the exhibit. Meaning that I would have had to remove it if funding was cut. Given its intended function, to provide a quiet space for reflection, this would likely have led me to forgo the display of imperial objects.

This conflict between what staff thought should be displayed and what funding would allow played out repeatedly. I frequently heard of wonderful objects, both imperial and non-imperial, which had truly amazing stories but could not be displayed as they did not fulfil the objectives of a grant.

An advisor to the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum once said that ‘nobody wins plaudits for funding exhibitions on empire’. Perhaps, then, the charges made against museum staff of ‘hiding’ the imperial past are over-simplistic, unfair even, and should also be directed at funding bodies.

Visitor reactions to the postcard also concerned me. Not because I was afraid of criticism for discussing the Empire. I would have openly embraced the debate. Instead, I was worried about how people would look at the bodies of the women depicted.

In a museum visited primarily by school children, I was fearful that the naked breasts would turn my exhibition into a joke. This would recreate the power imbalance in the original image by reducing the women and their bodies to the source of amusement for a second time.

Initially, I thought that I could use this to my advantage. I could teach the public about how the very act of looking is inherently marred by our own prejudices. However, object labels, I was advised, are best kept to around fifty words to retain a visitor’s attention. A word count which includes the object’s name, reference number, and date. There was no way I could have discussed such a complex issue in such a short space.

Also, the women of the image look uncomfortable and their stances appear forced. To me, it looks like they were coerced into being photographed, so had little power in the production of the image. Was I further stripping them of agency by exhibiting them for a second time?

Plus, in thinking that I had a right to decide whether to display their bodies, wasn’t I just assuming the same level of ownership over them as its original sender? This was an ethical dilemma that resurfaced when deciding whether I should even include the image here.

I still passionately believe that museums should be doing more to discuss the British Empire. But museums are complex institutions facing countless financial, political and moral pressures. It is this multifaceted nature that I believe is largely responsible for their imperial silence.

Not once at the NRM did I feel discouraged from talking about Empire, nor did I witness any deliberate attempt to hide the past.  Instead, I found like-minded people frustratingly trapped between the history they wanted to tell and the history they could tell.

Hannah Silvester is a MA student at the University of Sheffield. Her interests lie in gender history in late colonial and postcolonial South Asia. Hannah’s current work focuses on using Muslim women’s literature as a historical archive of nationalist and feminist thought in the years prior to and immediately after the partition of 1947.

Feature Image: National Railway Museum, Enginorum, p. 79. © Science Museum Group

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