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things 4
summer 1996

Then and now

The study of the past always serves the interests of the present. In Britain, in recent years, we have grown used to the harnessing of history to political ends: Prince Charles's enthusiasm for the order and achievements of the Georgian era, Margaret Thatcher's espousal of Victorian values, John Major's nostalgia for an indeterminate period, a golden age, of cricket, warm beer and spinsters on bicycles.

It is the task of historians to resist such appropriations. But there is another, more invidious, way in which approaches to the past may be distorted. 

New - and very welcome - approaches to history which have grown up in the past few decades have had unexpected consequences. Where historians once charted great sweeps of change in society, politics and economics, the tendency now is to focus more closely on the ordinary experiences of ordinary people - women, the family, working people, the poor. But while such approaches admirably restore to the historical record voices that were previously silent, or close to silent, they have had another, unlooked-for effect. As Raphael Samuel argues in his influential book Theatres of Memory (reviewed in this issue), such close-up views, domesticate the subject of history, making the personal seem all-important, and the larger forces of social, political and economic change all but irrelevant. Samuel believes that in, for example, stressing the historical stability of the family rather than its insecurity, these approaches have tended to play into the hands of the political Right.

We publish things in the belief that the study of objects can open up new ways of understanding the world. And in the work we present here, we make an ambitious claim: in narrowing our focus to things, we paradoxically widen the scope of our historical enquiry, so that the study of objects both stands alongside, and embraces, the more established disciplines of social, political and economic history.

Objects are not words, and they cannot be reduced to words; they stand forever, and mysteriously, beyond them, as do the lives in which they figure. In seeking to explain them, we are constantly being brought up against the limits of what we know, and driven to broaden the scope of our enquiry to bring together the close-up and wide-angle views. 

In this issue of things, Mia Hatgis's essay takes as its focus an 18th-century Indian painted petticoat piece. In asking why an 18th-century woman might have liked it and wanted to wear it, she moves from the conditions of its production and (to use an overworked word) consumption to a broader consideration of the influences that came together to create its fascinatingly hybrid design, how ideas about the exotic East came to be fictionalised, 18th-century English unease about luxury - and the business reasons behind the way in which, by the early 20th century, Indian chintz came to be seen not as something exotic, but as the most quintessentially English of fabrics. Sarah Foster's study examines a class of objects that have long fetched high prices in auction rooms on either side of the Atlantic, but have been left surprisingly untouched by scholarship: the luxury goods of late 18th-century Dublin. Using contemporary account-books and diaries, she explores what people were buying in the cash-rich society of the British empire's second city, and why  and finds, among many other things, evidence of boycotts of British goods which reflects the spirit of economic self-determinism that imbued pre-Union Ireland. Kristina Huneault's article uses trade-union imagery to explore the often ambiguous relationship between the English trade union movement and women workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And Esther Leslie explores the fascination of early 20th-century Marxist theorists with the detritus of everyday life, suggesting that these modernists were well acquainted with the dark side of modernism - an understanding that is all too often lost in the bright utopian visions of architecture and design, and without which the modernist project is forever doomed to remain not so much incomplete as impossible. 

things is growing up. Most of the postgraduate students who started things two years ago have gone out into the world to begin careers in universities and colleges, museums, or the media. things continues to be edited and published by past and present students of the Victoria & Albert Museum/Royal College of Art programme in the history of design; but it is time for us to take our first steps on our own. The Royal College of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum will always remain the institutions that brought us together, inspired us and helped form our approaches to the world of things; but things itself is now an independent publication. 

We aim to hold things open as a forum for the discussion of objects, their histories and meanings, in their widest senses, and as a place where young writers can publish alongside more established ones. The story is just beginning. Please stay with us! 

things 4, summer 1996

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