The Verbal and the Visual: Writing and The Wolfsonian’s Collection

“What are the limits and possibilities of writing about objects? What is useful and valuable in writing about material culture, and how do we go about it? The Wolfsonian’s collection is ideal for exploring questions like this with students, because there are so many kinds of objects,” says Vanessa Kraemer Sohan, assistant professor in the Department of English, Writing and Rhetoric at Florida International University.

There is a recent trend by scholars to redefine the borders of what constitutes rhetoric and writing, Sohan explains. In keeping with that trend, this spring twenty FIU upperclass English and liberal studies majors worked with The Wolfsonian’s collection as part of Sohan’s course, Material/Cultural Rhetorics and Writing, developed with the support of a Wolfsonian Infusion Grant. 

The course investigated writing about material culture by considering interdisciplinary scholarship in the fields of writing and rhetoric, literature, cultural studies, and material culture studies.

Students visited The Wolfsonian multiple times to learn about the collection and view the exhibitions. During the course, the class maintained a blog in which students discussed their ongoing research about the collection. They then wrote about Wolfsonian objects or exhibitions for their final projects. The items students considered included the stained glass piece known as the Geneva Window by Harry Clarke and the Magic Chef gas range, for which a student interwove her academic research about the stove and domestic life during the time period with her family’s traditions around food and her own love of cooking. Students also wrote about items on view in the Birth of Rome exhibition and in the “Cleaner, Healthier, Easier” installation in Art and Design in the Modern Age.

The course is an outgrowth of Sohan’s ongoing research related to textiles, and particularly to quiltmaking. Sohan’s work investigates the creative origins of textiles and how the form and process of creation can be viewed as “writing.” In preparation for teaching the course, she spent a good deal of time familiarizing herself with the museum’s collection and researching the emerging scholarly discussion about writing on material culture.

“The course was a great experience for the students and for me. We all learned a lot in the process. I think the students ended the class with more questions than answers, and that was really my goal,” Sohan says.

Although the semester is over, the course continues to be a focus for Sohan. So far, she has presented talks about it at two academic conferences. “People are excited to think about new ways of expanding writing classes,” she says.

Sohan is one of three FIU professors to receive an Infusion Grant from The Wolfsonian for the 2013–14 academic year. The awards are funded through a three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

Captions (click below to enlarge):

Top:

Gas range, Magic Chef, c. 1935
American Stove Company, St. Louis, Missouri, manufacturer
Enameled steel, chromium-plated steel, cast iron, stainless steel, plastic
60 x 45 x 27 inches (152.4 x 114.3 x 68.6 centimeters)
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
XX1989.245

Bottom:

Stained glass window, commissioned 1926, completed 1930 (never installed)
for the International Labor Building, League of Nations, Geneva
Harry Clarke (Irish, 1889–1931)
Clarke Studios, Dublin, maker
Stained glass, lead cames
71½ x 40 inches (181.6 x 101.6 centimeters)
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
TD1988.34.1

Installation view, Art and Design in the Modern Age
Photo: Lynton Gardiner
 

Article Image(s): 
The Verbal and the Visual: Writing and The Wolfsonian’s Collection
The Verbal and the Visual: Writing and The Wolfsonian’s Collection