The Power of Artifacts
The glasses are powerful, but they are also disturbing. In that exhibition, they were displayed inside a tower-like case, with a small viewing window in it. You had to seek out the glasses in order to view them, so if you didn’t want to see them, you didn’t accidentally encounter them in a more visible case in the exhibition. The case was brightly lit on the inside, which made the blood really stand out.
Yoko Ono recently tweeted an image of those bloody glasses to protest gun violence. Seeing a shooting victim’s blood on a pair of glasses in the style that became synonymous with Lennon is more powerful than any words.
An artifact is a witness to history that is not interpreted by a historian. It is the raw data of history. It conveys a message that is more powerful than words. The study of artifacts in this way is called material culture. Museum studies programs across the country teach students how to “read” artifacts, how to unlock their stories.
A typical history exhibition contains interpretation through the words written in labels. Historians, curators, and other researchers take great care to position an artifact in a setting that furthers the message of the exhibition. Sometimes artifacts are shown with related pieces of the same type, or from the same era. Other times they are juxtaposed with items that bring out a different story.
But sometimes, the artifacts stand alone, like John Lennon’s glasses. An artifact can take an event that happened decades or even centuries ago and bring it right into the present, directly speaking to the visitor standing in the gallery viewing it.
That is the power of the artifact. Can you imagine what stories they might tell us, if they could talk?
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