The Various Lives of (Hidden) Objects

Tiny Turtle Sculpture

Photo by author

A lot of my research starts like this: with very small objects, taken completely out of context, bearing little excavation data. I found this particular little turtle in the Cultural Resources Centerof the National Museum of the American Indian in Suitland, MD. He was squirreled away in one of the drawers, just waiting for someone like me to find him. And I did find him, but sadly once I held him, and photographed him from every angle, and thought about him a lot, did some extra reading and comparisons, he didn’t fit into any aspect of my research.

So what I’m left thinking about today isn’t what I wrote about, but what I didn’t write about, what made me discard those objects from my academic research, and why they weigh so heavy in my mind some days.

The largest body of work I’ve produced considers Aztec stone sculptures of plants and animals, and while my goal here is to talk about those (and other) objects, I can’t do that without discussing objectness, or, at the very least, the state of being in proximity to the same, or similar, objects for hours that turn into days and months and years, and then letting them go because they don’t fit into your project.

Art historian Esther Pasztory has argued repeatedly, most recently at a 2012 College Art Association conference session entitled Theory, Method, and the Future of Pre-Columbian Art History, that “In the Pre-Columbian world, realism appears suddenly twice, unrelated, in the Olmec colossal heads and Moche ceramics. In both cases, there is very little earlier development before portrait representations” (4). I have read Pasztory’s argument several times, and I read this quote several times, when finally it dawned on me: realism means realistic representations of human faces, not naturalism. Therefore, despite the fact that Pasztory refers to “the Western theory of naturalistic representation” (the idea that realistic representations are both preferable and part of a linear development of the image), it becomes clear that she is only discussing humans.

Pasztory’s statement is at odds with nearly every catalog entry or short textbook paragraph written about Aztec sculpture of the natural world, even her own (Aztec Art, 1983, 233). Again and again, Aztec sculptures of plants and animals are called “naturalistic”, “realistic”, and any other word you can think of that implies that these sculptures look like real plants and animals. In fact, they do look like real plants and animals, just rendered schematically in stone. I rarely think an Aztec frog sculpture is going to hop away but the sculpted details do boggle my mind and capture my imagination.

Because I’m so engaged with these objects, I‘ve spent many nights wondering, if you see an object in storage and don’t write about it, does it still exist? And if you don’t write about that object, what can it teach you?

Tiny Turtle Sculpture

Photo by author

Part of being an object-based art historian is becoming attached to the things we look at. We know the objects have stories, we have the desire to figure them out and tell them, and we feel disappointed when we can’t.

I want to tell you the story of this turtle, and I will. I cannot guarantee it will be part of a longer story, or a grand narrative with many connections, but I can guarantee that he will have his day on a rock, in the sun.

3 thoughts on “The Various Lives of (Hidden) Objects

  1. Pingback: » The Data Left Behind from the Library of Maura

  2. Your relationship with the little turtle points to one of my favorite aspects of art history–the feeling that even everyday research is a bit of a treasure hunt. It also never fails to amaze me how many parallels there are between medieval and Pre-Columbian research. Several groups of medievalists are consciously paying more attention to the “life” of non-human objects, so your point about naturalism is a particularly relevant one. (See, for instance,

    • I really love the continuities between medieval, pre-Columbian, and colonial Latin American research because it demonstrates so much about the discipline. Thanks for the Material Collective link — what a great project!

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