History in the Hills: Our material culture
As you may have noticed throughout these recent articles, I am very focused on “place.” Our landscape, river, towns — the physical places we inhabit are very important and can tell our story in unique ways. But what of our material culture? The actual tangible object is often all that is needed to connect us to a specific time or place. This is why historical societies, museums, libraries and landmarks are important. These places act as repositories for our history, our collective memory and, more importantly, our material culture. To put it plainly, our stuff.
“Stuff” is inanimate, but it can represent memories, events and stories that can be just as important as a place or person that is no longer here.
That is one reason we have museums, after all, to showcase objects that hold some importance of our local or national history. Objects have a certain power to bring history to life and bring it home.
At Historic Fort Steuben, one of my favorite objects here is a land patent owned by Steubenville’s founder, Bezaleal Wells. This document must have come through the First Federal Land Office that we now have in Fort Steuben Park. Additionally, land patents, until 1833, had to be signed by the president, and this one is no exception. What makes ours extra special is that it is signed by the president in 1807, Thomas Jefferson, and future president James Madison while he served as secretary of state. It is amazing that here in Steubenville, we have a document signed by Jefferson, a founding father, author and signer of the Declaration of Independence, a renaissance man in every respect, as well as James, father of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of our country. If one could measure the historical importance of these two giants in American history, few others would compare with their significance. You don’t need to travel outside of the valley to see this document, just stop by the fort.
Most objects in our local museums aren’t so nationally important, but that doesn’t mean they are insignificant. In fact, those seemingly unimportant objects can carry more personal historical weight.
For instance, at the Weirton Museum and Cultural Center, they have in their collection the children’s carousel from Marlinn’s Shoe Store in downtown Weirton. I’m sure shopping for shoes was made much more fun when you could ride the carousel to pass the time, and this object assuredly is nostalgic for many. For me, a particularly important object, is the old checkout desk from the Mary H. Weir Public Library. While seemingly mundane, for me personally it carries a lot of happy memories of anxiously checking out books at the library that I couldn’t wait to read when I got home. In an era when there was no Internet or Google, books were one of the ways to introduce us to the world and take us on amazing adventures. And what connected me to that world was the checkout desk. Those books shaped me and made me the person I am today.
Objects have the power to move us. At the Jefferson County Historical Association museum, a particularly important object on display is the inkstand owned and used by Steubenville’s own Edwin Stanton while he was secretary of war under Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. As secretary of war, Stanton was literally right in the action concerning the military during the war. The letters, notes, reports and correspondence concerning the Civil War that must have come from that object leaves us to wonder what history it could tell.
Objects speak to us when those who used them can’t anymore. At the Hancock County Museum, two field hockey sticks are part of its collection. Once owned by the children of Oliver S. Marshall, these two objects were found in the attic after the museum acquired the building. They help tell the story of the family and the fun that were had by the Marshall children as they played around the 1887 structure.
My wife, who is a public historian, and I have discussed the question at length — do museums still need objects? And our answer is yes. Museums do, in fact, need tangible objects to tell the story of us. Without these important pieces of material culture, the stories museums tell somehow fall short.
Here in the Ohio Valley, our history is full and with the help of our material culture, it comes alive.
(Zuros is the director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)