Real autobiographical objects in a glass box

Yesterday, on the suggestion of my colleague Ted Little, I visited the Centre d’Histoire de Montreal in Old Montreal.  There, the section “We Are Here/Nous Sommes Ici” presents the final exhibition of the Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and other Human Rights Violations project hosted by Concordia University. The exhibit presents in various forms the autobiographical stories of immigrants to Montreal who have left their countries of origin, fleeing violence and seeking a better, safer life in Canada. There are so many things that I want to say about the exhibit, but… to stick to theme of this blog (and to the interests of my research) I want to talk about the artifacts.

One section of the exhibit features a collection of suitcases. Arrayed around the suitcases in glass boxes are actual artifacts pertaining to several individual immigrants profiled here. There is a museum style placard listing the person’s name, a precis of their history, and descriptions of the objects in the clear cases. These objects included family photographs, identity cards, talismans from home, and other special memorabilia. Without the presence of the actual person, these objects stand in for that presence. Our experience forms a bridge between these two poles — between the present object the absent person. Indeed this is so much what museums do staging artifacts from the past to establish connection. The viewer establishes an affective relationship to the absent past through the object. The object has travelled from there to be here and we reverse that journey in our imagination travelling with the object from here to back to there.

My questions then concern how this emotional transference of experience is applied to real objects of historical provenance inside performance. Theatre is always putting real things on the stage and making them into something else. A prop chair becomes Miss Julie’s kitchen chair. But sometimes, the actual world thing is identical to the fictional thing it is portraying. The staged object re-performs its own “autobiographical” (if objects can have autobiography?) history.  This chair here is the actual chair that was really used in the original event of the story being performed. This connection might be further heightened if the object was active in some way, that is, if it is a knife or a suitcase, or a black box recorder.  Central to the action of the event in some way.

So much more thinking to do about staging real objects… but my insight for today (a small one) is that museums, whose business it is to stage real objects, might be a good place to begin.

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