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things 3
winter 1995-96

This and that

History in Britain has tended, traditionally, to concern itself with the manifestations of state power: it has been, predominantly, political and military history. Other approaches to the past - including those of the influential neo-Marxist historians, and the new approaches defined by social and feminist approaches, the histories from below that have given voice to groups that have previously been unrepresented in the historical record - have grown up in explicit resistance to the old school of historians with their insistence that power and influence are the only proper subjects for enquiry about the past. 

Born in the dying days of the unquestionability of the neo-Marxist approach, design history has shared in, and been marked by, the turbulence that has surrounded historical debate in the years since the mid 1970s. In its study of objects, it has been concerned to subvert the dominant discourses of connoisseurship on the one hand, and of modernism on the other: the issues of value and of authorship that concern them both have been replaced by new approaches, learned from feminist and social history and from new directions in art history, that emphasise, instead, contextuality, consumption and use. 

In the approach to objects represented in things, we hope to find a way of opening up approaches to the past still further. Less prominent, and less recognised, than our sister historiographies, we work more closely with the objects, the things that furnish human lives; and we wish to use them to explore those lives. We can and must, if our endeavour is to make any sense  ask our questions as broadly as possible. We need to know about the maker of an object, and its designer, and its user; and our search for answers to our questions will take us through the many different disciplines that have grown up in addressing the past: not only the history of design, but those of technology, and of industry, and of consumption; of society, of economics, of culture, of ideas, and of politics; and, often, further afield into the history of hygiene, of warfare, of religion, of ideologies. 

Our curiosity rules nothing  no thing - out as an object of study: we want to look at every thing. So, in this issue of things, Jacqueline Durran explores the growing regulation of the British citizen through the increasing standardisation of naval uniform at the turn of the 19th century. Lisa Hirst questions the  modernist equation between mechanisation and progress in a study of the use of rayon for womens stockings in the 1930s, while in sketching the social and economic debates of post-war West Germany and the part played in them by the electronics company Braun, one of the great patrons of modernist design minimalism, Erica Carter explores the historical background, and with it the contingency, of another the givens of  modernist design doctrine, that less is more. 

But we embrace not only the mass-produced things with which design history has always concerned itself, but also the elite objects that have often been regarded as the exclusive province of connoisseurial knowledge. Amin Jaffer's analysis of some objects traditionally regarded as elite, the furniture produced for British settlers in early 19th-century India, provides the groundwork for further exploration of the adaptability of the highly skilled body of Indian craftsmen when confronted with the demands of setters from an enormously different culture trying to set up home in a strange land. 

But our voyage of discovery takes us still further. In his discussion of the holding and calling of objects in the work of the French feminist writer Hélène Cixous, Steve Baker draws attention to a central part of our work as historians. It is the a part which is, almost always, absent: the subjective relationship of people with things which lies, for the most part, and unless we are very lucky with our sources, beyond our reach when we are dealing with objects from the past. It is here that our enquiry strays beyond the scope of design history, and all the other histories, and into the area of literature and poetry. But it is this essentially poetic awareness of the richness of meaning inherent in objects which lies at the heart of our own relationship with the things around us, as well as at the centre of our endeavour as historians.

things 3, winter 1995-1996

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