Friday, February 25, 2022

Reed Gochberg's "Useful Objects"

Reed Gochberg is Assistant Director of Studies and a Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Useful Objects: Museums, Science, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century America, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Useful Objects, we find Nathaniel Hawthorne experimenting with different outcomes for the end of his short story, “The Ancestral Footstep,” from his American Claimant manuscripts. In this unfinished story, Hawthorne depicts an American man who travels to England in order to claim his title to a family estate. In a crucial scene, the protagonist seeks a lost manuscript potentially hidden in a “cabinet”—a cabinet of curiosities that at once represents both the family estate and for a collection that might preserve his claim. Hawthorne never published this story, and he also never quite decided how he wanted it to end. In one version, Middleton finds that what he seeks has been carefully preserved and awaits his discovery; in another, he opens the cabinet to find that only dust remains of an object that is now lost.

Page 99 captures many of the key themes of the book as a whole. Useful Objects examines the early history of American museums through the eyes of writers, artists, and visitors, showing how they participated in wider debates about the role of institutions in determining what to collect and preserve. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, museums promised to promote “useful knowledge,” and their collections often ranged widely, bringing together natural history specimens, antiquarian artifacts, mechanical models, and anthropological materials. By the late nineteenth century, many museums had become more specialized, with collections explicitly dedicated to science, history, or art. This earlier period, however, was a dynamic era of transition, when the very idea of a “museum” was still being defined.

The founders of museums were not the only participants in this conversation. In fiction, essays, and travel narratives, many writers described visits to museum galleries and reflected on the collections they encountered. They considered possibilities of loss, erasure, and decay, questioning what objects would be valued and preserved. They also raised significant questions about who would be able to access and claim authority within the elite world of cultural institutions. Their accounts illuminate the larger concerns and challenges evoked by nineteenth-century museums—many of which we see on page 99.

Page 99 offers a fictional and imaginative version of this process, showing how writers like Hawthorne were considering various possibilities for what might be found—or lost—within a museum. Yet it also foregrounds the role of individuals seeking to know and discover their own history through objects. In this way, it captures the questions that are at the center of Useful Objects: about how we determine what to value, about who participates in that process, and about how we can continue to seek out more expansive and inclusive visions in cultural institutions today.
Learn more about Useful Objects at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue