Methods, Practice and Agency of Things


Prasad Boradkar, Associate Professor, Herberger Institute School of Art and Design
Configuring Things: In the city of Pune in western India, there is a valley called tambat ali (copper valley) where copper craftsmen and their families have been making water containers, vessels for food, religious artifacts, and other decorative items with hand-beaten copper for over 400 years. People and things together possess agency, and they act in conjunction with each other in shaping our world. If design and manufacturing can be described as activities in which people configure things, things themselves play a role, in turn, in configuring human societies. There exists a complex engagement between people and things, and the effect they have on each other. Using these copper artifacts as a case study can offer an explanation of how the meanings of things are configured (or designed) in complex, dynamic networks by a large number of agents.

Kostalena Michelaki and Richard Toon, Associate Professor and Associate Research Professor, School of Human Evolution & Social Change
“Until they grow legs and start running around…” Exploring resistance to material agency in archaeology and museum studies: Humans spend most of their time observing, touching, smelling, drawing, breaking, even tasting things, yet most of their talking and teaching focuses on what things symbolize, what they stand for; not what they are, what they do, or what they make us do. On that same note, museum studies, while emphasizing objects in collections and their meanings to us, continues to treat them as inert, behind glass vitrines or in storage. A small number of archaeologists have questioned the primacy of human agency, asserting and re-evaluating both what qualifies as ‘a thing’ and, thus, the goal of the entire discipline. Resistance to the possibility of material agency, however, remains strong in archeology and museum studies is virtually silent on the issue, still dominated by the textual turn. The resistance against challenging human primacy can be unfolded by tracing the concept of ‘agency’ in the theory and practice of archaeology, museum studies and in the training of students in these disciplines. What do we stand to lose, if we embrace the new ontology of things and what do we stand to gain? What will we have to give-up to open our epistemological horizons and transform our practice?

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