About the Exhibit

Think of an item of significance to you. What does it look like? How do you use it? What does it say about you? How does the object perform your race, gender, class, age, and social status? This exhibition argues that objects take intangible categories of identity and give them physical form in the material world. 

To unpack the many narratives at work in the material world, this exhibition uses objects from Special Collections at the University of Chicago. These objects were produced in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They have a range of material forms—from two dimensional paper dolls, documents, and broadsides to three dimensional books, clothing, buttons, and board games. The multiple, overlapping, and often contradictory categories of identity manifested by these objects were unstable. They changed throughout history according to their date, place, creator, and audience. The intended audience for these objects varied widely. Some of the objects were explicit teaching tools specifically aimed at engaging children; others sought to reach the broadest audience possible. Together, they speak to the ways objects stabilize, break down, and reimagine categories of identity. 

The sections are broken into “narratives” and “counternarratives.”

The “Narratives” objects construct larger stories of American gender, race, and class roles from the social position of the maker and user. They capture the politics that defined social norms and expectations in the United States at the time of their production and use. This section presents objects that established and reinforced identities and power structures that center on educated, wealthy white women and men. The objects embody their ideas, their experiences, the social power they had, and the organizations they controlled. There is a range of different objects here: a straight razor to a varsity sweater to sheet music. They embody the ways that dominant narratives of identity are taught, performed, and enforced through the material world. They show how people interact with, accept, and claim their identities. These objects present narratives created by the dominant group in society in material form.

The “counternarratives” section, on the other hand, introduces the ways objects may fill in the gaps of history or reject identities forced upon them. How do the material forms of these objects challenge racial or gender ideals? What agendas are these objects serving? Who are their audiences? “Counternaratives” presents a range of objects that explore the unstable categories of race and gender in the physical world. The objects offer counternarratives instead of reinforcing popular views of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Counternarratives are narratives created to fill a gap in knowledge or challenge accepted histories. These objects rewrite mainstream ideas about race and gender in American history. They do so by appealing to diverse audiences and taking a variety of physical forms. Like historical texts, these objects offer rich insight into the time and place of their creation. They demonstrate how identities were, and continue to be, constructed and contested through the material world.


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