Material culture will surprise you
Material culture matters. You may have heard this amazing story about the graffito a 19th c watchmaker scratched into the inner workings of Lincoln’s pocket watch. The watchmaker’s descendants had passed down a story of their ancestor scrawling an antislavery message into the watch, and this story came to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. They decided to investigate. Earlier this week, the watch was carefully opened and the message was revealed! “Split into three different sections to get around the tiny gears was this razor-thin etching: “Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861. Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date thank God we have a government.” ”
Watchmaker Jonathan Dillon wanted to record something for posterity, to be a part of history in the making. His reaction to the firing on Fort Sumter adds a fascinating layer to our historical knowledge about the watch in our collection. More than that, Dillon’s secret message—now revealed—is a reminder of the many rich histories so many of us keep in our families, connecting us in a deep and personal sense with the strange inner workings of the past.
I think this story gives us some insight into the role of surprise, serendipity and discovery in history and history museums.
Material culture remains persistently surprising. Objects don’t speak, though we like to say they do. People speak. The stories people bring to, from and through material culture keep our collections items vital–and sometimes these stories are nothing we could have expected. A watchmaker wrote a note in Lincoln’s pocket watch, under the gears? Kudos to the NMAH for being willing to investigate this story that could only be told through the pocketwatch–through objects people make, live with, repair, and even vandalize. Material culture items hold cultural memories as long as there are people to tell their stories and advocate for them.
There has been lamentation that the internet and the decline of newspapers and stack searching will mean the end of serendipity and will turn culture into customized echo chambers. And critics (like the futurists, or these pomo kittens) have indicted museums for enforcing authority, for making objects and people conform to a strict storyline. But museums are still serendipity machines. They are places full of surprising juxtapositions, things found nowhere else, people engaged in social innovation, secrets hidden in objects that need people to draw them out. Objects themselves, and visitors’ unexpected interpretations of them, will always frustrate those strict narratives. Museums, particularly small history museums (which are, as I’m sure you remember, more than half of all museums), continue to be messy and miscellaneous, platforms for discovery.