Moving Objects: French History Special Issue

The latest issue of French History is a special issue focused on material culture. The special issue editors Ludivine Broch, Will Pooley and Andrew Smith joined us to talk about things, Frenchness, and the special joys of special issues. You can read the whole issue, much of which is open-access, here.

Hi Andrew, Ludivine, Will! Thanks for joining us to talk about the new special issue of French History. Could you start by telling us how this project came about?

Andrew: A wise man once said that all origin stories are excuses (it was Will). Our excuse? Will and I rallied to Ludivine’s flag when she came up with a title we felt was too good not to publish: Objectifying France.

In the years since, after a huge amount of organising, editing, writing, and researching, we’ve all succeeded in… not publishing that title. 

The point in that initial title though was a good one, it was provocative, quite fun, and offered a stepping off point to consider ideas of materiality through the lens of ‘national histories’. We proposed a panel to the SSFH Conference in Leeds in 2019 as a first run at the concept, and things went down fairly well. 

In the intervening period of a thousand years, we’ve taken the whole concept apart and put it together again during long discussions and numerous workshops.

Ludivine: Yes, it’s amazing how far we have come from the original idea.

I had stumbled across this unique story of 52,000 French objects shipped to the US in 1949, and had immediately started to think about rooting these objects in French culture, history, society, politics and economics.

There were several which threw me back to so much of my childhood, when I wandered through my grandparents’ flat and would look at all the little things they had. My family was very sentimental, but also very serious, about family ‘treasures’, these small, or sometimes bigger, things which got passed down from generation to generation. Their flat was small, but every object had a story which connected to the past lives of family members who I had never met and were now dead.

In many ways, this special issue had been for me a desire to understand a bit more of those ‘things’ which make up ideas of France and which become part of our identities; but the more we talked, the more we listened, the more we read… the less certain I became that there was such a thing as a French object!

This was the glorious part, really: how the different contributors and projects thickened my understanding of material culture. I could have never done this kind of work alone. And it was so fun doing it together.

Will: I love journal special issues, because they feel more than just the sum of their parts. The topics of the articles in this issue are incredibly diverse, but they do all draw on shared conversations we had through the online events.

I might go even further than Ludivine: it wasn’t just the Frenchness of French objects I came to doubt: I think I sometimes felt that they our discussions had exploded ‘objects’ in so many different directions that it became hard to know what an object is (I might need a lie down).

Andrew: As it turned out, those breezy early days inevitably lurched into the turbulence of Spring 2020 (and who can say they haven’t watched Grand Designs in grim anticipation as the progress of ludicrously ambitious schemes approaches that particular milestone). 

The online workshops which we ended up settling on to keep the project going provided a welcome respite amid the unrelenting horrors of early COVID lockdowns. We all had to look after confined and sometimes distant families, had to continue teaching students in perilous situations, as well as contributing to the ‘online pivot’ of our various learned societies to help keep them afloat. 

Being able to come together for a few hours at a time to talk with smart people about productive research therefore felt like a real balm and, in the language of those early days, like something of a bubble.

A French object?

Were you all working on material culture already?

Andrew: I’ve always been interested in objects. During my many years of precarious employment, I tried a variety of teaching styles as I met new material I was teaching for the first time. Years ago, I wrote a piece on teaching with objects as prompts for stories and anchors for complex discussions, then presented it at the IHR/TNA/RHS Aylmer Seminar in 2017. 

That involved using Art Museum collections to try and teach about fin-de-siecle concerns around degeneration, working on object biographies from Egyptian artefacts in the Petrie Museum, and talking to students about the national identity of fossils in the Grant Museum of Zoology. I’ll be honest and say that it also involved me bringing my sporran to class to talk to students about ways of constructing transnational histories of self. 

It was a productive time for me, and it also led to the creation of the publication Paper Trails: The Social Life of Archives and Collections.  If you want the whole story of how that went from second-hand book to living book (with sandwiches in between), then you can read the blog I wrote about its launch. That is an ongoing open-access publication dedicated to the materiality of archives and collections, and it’s one in which I’m delighted to count both Will and Ludivine as collaborators as well!

Ludivine: Short answer: no.

Long answer: I had always worked with objects without even realising it. Archives are, in themselves, objects. This was something that Paper Trails really brought to light for me: the materiality of our sources. Whether our sources are physical or not (a lot of the papers here allude to the absence of things, or to working with digital images) their physicality is still a thing for us. I had not thought about the concept of materiality seriously before, and it is only once we started this workshop that I came to realise how the physical experience of coming up close to a cattle car from the Second World War had been a turning point for me in my doctoral years: it was only when I stood beside this massive, imposing rectangle on wheels, 3 years into my PhD, in South-West France, that I came closer than ever to understanding my work on railwaymen during the war.

Working on a collection of objects was new for me, and how to make sense of these objects was initially puzzling. And whilst I have made a lot of progress in thinking about material culture, our workshop made it clear that this is a conversation which will just keep on evolving.

This is actually the most brilliant thing I have learned in reading up on material culture, in discovering the writings of anthropologists, sociologists and curators: after feeling frustrated for not knowing everything about my doctoral thesis topic, I now knew/know that the real magic of research lies in its elusiveness, in the fact that our research has no fixed answers, but is open to reconsideration and questioning.

Basically, I’m now hooked on material culture. Thinking about objects seriously has changed the way I want to think about my research, and I now co-lead a module on ‘Objects and Meaning’ at Westminster which I adore. Suppose I’ll have to add this special issue to our reading list… !

Will: I’d probably echo what Ludivine and Andrew said. One of the starting points for a lot of us was coming to terms with the fact that objects are everywhere in our research, and everywhere untheorized, unanalysed.

For me, the project was a really good opportunity to sit with objects, to try and make my analysis object centered. (And I still ended up writing about images and texts).

How was it doing this together?

Will: I feel like co-editing a collection and co-writing can either be brilliant… or terrible. When it’s brilliant, it’s easier than just writing something on your own. Your collaborators have ideas, and finish your – 

Andrew:  – sentences, or rearrange the argument in a way that is much smarter than you wrote it. 

Ludivine: Team work makes the dream work!

Especially when Will and Andrew are on your team. But seriously: one of the joys of academia is to work with people who you admire and respect, but who you can also have a casual pint with in the pub (and who won’t judge you when you send them a photo of a 2-metre-wide tartiflette on What’sApp in the middle of summer).

You can read the special issue now here, and most of the contributions are open-access.

Over the coming weeks, we will have guest posts from authors from this issue unpacking their articles and giving some insight into the writing process – look forward to lace bobbins, playing cards, sheep, trains, and a range of chaotic approaches to writing…


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