Unsettled Things

oil painting

Students learn to handle an oil painting at the Nightingale-Brown House.

In the spring of 2016, I taught a seminar course for first- and second-year students at Brown University entitled “Unsettled Things: Objects and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century America.”

The course description read as follows:

College Hill is home to numerous accumulations of things, from Civil War relics to Old Master paintings and fragments of taxidermy. Where did these objects come from? Why were they collected? How have their meanings and uses changed over time? How might we reconsider them today?

Students will examine objects; read about collecting and the development of natural history, anthropology, history, and fine art; write research papers that incorporate material culture methodology; and develop a museum tour.

“Unsettled Things” combined material culture studies with the history of museums to explore the role of objects in knowledge production.   Students visited collections within and around Brown.  They carried out weekly field studies, examining things ranging from Thoreau’s door knocker to a neck ring sent from Africa by a nineteenth-century missionary.  They also wrote research papers on the object of their choice from an area collection.

As a final group project, the students researched the history of the Annmary Brown Memorial, a small, mysterious, and often-overlooked museum on Brown’s campus. First opened to the public in 1907, the Memorial is a hybrid museum/mausoleum that houses paintings, relics, and the tomb of a late married couple.  Students designed a guided tour of the Memorial, with each student responsible for communicating a particular part of its story.

On May 3 students ran the tour four times for a total of more than 50 people.  Visitors also received booklets featuring students’ short essays about the Memorial.

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Student Sean Briody leads a tour at the Annmary Brown Memorial.