Interview with Giorgio Riello


Giorgio Riello is Professor of Global History and Culture and Director of the Institute of Advanced Study and the Global History and Culture Centre at the University of Warwick. He is the author of A Foot in the Past (OUP 2006) and Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World (CUP 2013) and has published extensively on the history of material culture, fashion, design, and trade and consumption in early modern Europe and Asia. He is the co-editor, among the many, of Global Design History (Routledge 2011), Writing Material Culture History (Bloomsbury 2015) and The Global Lives of Things (Routledge 2016). His most recent book is entitled Luxury: A Rich History (OUP 2016) which he co-authored with Peter McNeil.

During my stay at the University of Warwick as a visiting PhD student, I had the chance to talk to Giorgio about his research on and engagement with material culture studies.

Sonia Calvi: When and why did you become interested in material culture studies?

Giorgio Riello: That’s a difficult one. It wasn’t the kind of Damascene conversion. I was writing my PhD what later became A Foot in the Past. That was, in its original formulation, a fairly box-standard economic history analysis of a sector that I had chosen because it hadn’t mechanised until very late in the 19th century. As the thesis was about shoemakers, it was to understand what they produced: shoes. I was encouraged by my supervisor Negley Harte to examine several collections, and in particular the V&A collection. But in the beginning, I confess, I didn’t know what to do with it, that’s the main difficulty with material culture. Encouraged by Beverly Lemire, who was also the examiner of my PhD, I applied for a fellowship at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, the Veronika Gervers Fellowship, to spend some time in the museum and study their shoe collection that hadn’t really been much studied before. But that was only towards the end of my PhD. So in fact, the difference between the PhD and the book is that the book engages much more with material culture; the PhD is much more an economic history analysis. And from there I developed even more an interest in material culture: I was first of all part of a project at the Royal College of Arts on the study of domestic interiors and from there I replaced John Styles in the course of History of Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum. To be in a museum meant a completely different approach because in museums the objects become central to everyday concern. I always say that unlike historians, who need to construct narratives and might use objects to do that, curators in the museum world put the object at the centre of their concern: they care for the object and take care of the object. So there is a bit of an inversion of roles between museum curators and historians.

What is the most fascinating aspect of the specific materials you are working with?

Eventually I moved to do a lot of research on textiles, especially on cotton textiles. Since then I’ve written quite a lot on the methodologies of material culture, not because I think I am a particularly methodological guy, but because they are the challenging part of material culture history. I was asked to reflect on this by Karen Harvey many years ago, for a book about approaches to material culture. Then other pieces followed on the methodological aspect of material culture. My research path into global history has then led me to deal with a very of different artefacts especially in relation to global trade in the Early Modern period. That’s another differentiation between historians and museum curators: museum curators tend to specialise themselves. If you are the Keeper of textiles in a museum, you are most likely to deal with textiles for your entire career. In a sense we, as academics, are both parvenu and butterflies. We move very fast from one topic to another – and one type of artefact to another, sometime to the annoyance of museum curators, because we don’t seem to have the time really to digest the complexity of the topics that we consider. However, the engagement with a variety of different materials and artefacts from different centuries has been an interesting experience for me. There are also aspects that I haven’t really approached at all, like museum curatorship or museum display. All those aspects came together in a book I edited with Anne Gerritsen entitled Writing Material Culture History; that again brought us to think about method. I’ve always been unsympathetic to those who claim: You must absolutely engage with material culture, how do you dare not to? History as a subject has been done for centuries without looking much at material culture; it actually moved away from objects during its professionalization. So you have to state very clearly why you should spend time and effort in engaging with objects and what you get out of it. If you don’t get anything out of the process perhaps it’s not a good choice. Moreover there are all sorts of questions for which material culture is not relevant.

How did the field of material culture studies influence your research over the last years?

Material culture and all its different aspects have perhaps changed most of all the questions that I ask. I came historical research as an economic historian with very tight questions that were discipline-based, very argument-based and very much historiographically embedded. When confronted with an object you find that you have to ask somewhat different questions. Some of those actually fall within the little patch that we call history and that we have professionalised as a discipline, but some of them don’t. Sometimes they belong to what we might call the study of the past, that is different from history; or the questions that you ask might have a strong public relevance, so they might lead to the production of films, historical novels or things other than academic books. So personally, this is what has allowed me to ask slightly different questions and on the other hand also to question what are the rather inflexible limits of what is history. In this way, it has put a question mark on history as a professionalised discipline. So earlier on I was saying that curators are curators and that historians are historians but on the other hand that is no longer the case.

Would you say that this has made your research more inter- and transdisciplinary?

In a way it has allowed me to escape economic history and perhaps even history. You might say and criticize that what I do is a kind of melange, a kind of fusion in which there are some cultural bits, some traditional social history bits, some more economic bits and so on. But all of them seem to have in common a deep interest in the understanding of materiality, something that is actually quite real. So it has allowed me to range quite extensively. An example: I could have written my book Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World by including only figures and graphs, telling you about trade and economic development through industrialization. And there is a bit of that in my book. But that is mixed together with object-based analyses. In fact, all the chapters start with an object; the way in which the argumentation is constructed rotates around material artefacts. Usually, you either have the books that sit in the so-called art history category with lots of images or you have the books that sit in the more economic category with lots of graphs and tables. Mine had both of them much to the displeasure of my publisher. People have commented that there is too much in that book, because it has all these different approaches. But that’s actually what I like.

Only in recent times has the history of emotions been highlighted in correlation with materiality. How do you understand and evaluate the relationship between objects and emotions?

The best example I have encountered in recent years was the exhibition organized by John Styles at the Foundling [Threads of Feeling at the Foundling Museum]. It presented tokens that were the tokens left with children that were given to the orphanage, the foundling hospital, in the mid 18th century. Many of them were pieces of cloth. And they’re profoundly moving. I remember going see these ledgers and I don’t think I have ever been confronted by a ledger, which is a classic bureaucratic document, that is so impregnated of emotions. You realise that mothers, in this case, left their child with a token of recognition in case they could return and get the child back. As we know from the exhibition, you get very much involved in that. John commented that it was probably the exhibition in which they had a large number of people crying. At the same time, for me it was an interesting experience because next to the emotions there was also the bureaucratic process of simply registering, recording, putting down information and so on. And the swatches themselves, I say as a heartless economic historian, are the largest catalogue of everyday textiles of the 18th century in the world. So it’s a completely different take on the history of emotions. In this case, the materiality puts together both of these approaches perfectly well. And in fact you start to understand what is the relationship between them. To highlight one or the other risks creating somewhat a biased world. One is a heartless world of economic theories and economic mechanisms, the other one is a somewhat more conducive world full of emotions seemingly floating without any social structures, cultural conventions and so on. I think the mixing of the two is what we should be trying to achieve.

Do you think that material culture studies help to broaden the audience’s interest in historical writing?

Yes, I think it does. It has done it for a long time, although the last decade has seen the appearance of new types of communication through objects. Let’s take exhibitions: if you asked people ten, fifteen years ago what exhibitions were, they would have told you they were about paintings, so two-dimensional objects. Today, I think people have a different view that includes three-dimensional objects. We had major exhibitions, here in Britain at the V&A, at the British Museum and to a certain extend also at the Royal Academy – museums that have been promoters of large-scale so-called blockbuster exhibitions – which integrated of two-dimensional paintings, prints with three-dimensional objects on themes very often global. So we had Encounters, that was a major exhibition at the V&A in 2003, that was very important for the development of global history, then you had the Turks at the Royal Academy and then the British Museum followed with one on Iran, Ming China more recently, then the Interwoven Globe at the MET in the United States and so on. If you write a book, the book sells a few thousand copies if you are lucky, but one of these exhibitions has 200’000-300’000 visitors. So the scale of it is quite impressive. And then of course the radio programme on the History of the World in 100 Objects was incredibly successful around the world. That has made people aware that museums are not just containers of objects but actually are makers of historical narratives, as well. Sometimes, those historical narratives are borrowed straight from the toolbox of historians, sometimes it’s much more of a conversation. It’s most likely that a person who has a minimal interest in any of these topics mentioned might approach them via an exhibition and a catalogue rather than by book. Catalogues, as well, are no longer strictly speaking reasoned pieces on the objects on display; they are much more of a kind of an intellectual engagement with the topic. This has broadened therefore the notion of who is a historian and who makes history and who presents it.

Do you see yourself as writing history together with museums and galleries or how do you see this collaboration?

Yes, it’s a partnership. It doesn’t mean that we work side by side every day, but surely here at Warwick we are trying to have a dialogue going on through various different means: through projects and networks, that bring us together and make us reflect upon sometimes very specific objects. Coming from a university in which there is no museum and no gallery, no objects, it is fundamental for us to do that. It’s a collaboration in which sometimes we speak slightly different languages but there is also the goodwill of learning each other’s languages and trying to find a common ground as well. So historians might ask classical historical questions and might want large historical narratives, the museum curator might come with in-depth knowledge of the objects and then you need to try to see how the two can be knitted together. Sometimes it’s highly successful, sometimes it’s not. If it’s not, you try again.

What is the trajectory of material culture studies? How do you see the recent development of material culture studies?

There have been a few things that are quite interesting. One is that I’ve come to reconsider totally the meaning of conservation. In my kind of naive and unnuanced perspective, conservation was mostly the idea of preserving the objects materially. But it turns out that actually the research behind it is so fundamental to the understanding of the object that it entails very sophisticated historical questions. The other thing is that I have seen some of our colleagues now adopting much more technical language as well. For instance, I’ve been involved with the Pasold Research Fund for many years, that is a fund supporting research in the history of textiles, and there is a quite large number now of requests for grants that come from scholars that actually require fairly sophisticated technical analyses. These might be an analysis of pigment, carbon dating and so on. We have passed the level of engagement with the object I call aesthetic, of “oh I like this object”: that is no longer an issue. For me the most interesting objects are damaged objects, shards, broken pieces and so on. They’re much more usable, much more versatile, they leave a lot to the imagination, much more than an object that has been completely polished, remade and put behind glass. And as I said that entails a different kind of relationship with the object: a much more hands-on and material engagement with the artefact. In the early days I think historians were slightly squeamish. I’ve seen many instances in which you put students, for instance, in front of an object and you can see a kind of repulsion: “I don’t know what to do”. I think we are past that, we know what to do. I also think our engagement has changed, it has gone beyond the analysis of surfaces. But sometimes it’s very complicated, because it’s not that one just needs access to the artefacts, one needs the equipment, access to handling, and the time and patience of the people who are preserving and taking care of these objects. This is for example the case with textiles, which are rather fragile, and their study is not something that can be done in a hurry.

What kind of sources or objects proved to be the most fruitful for you during your research?

I had different phases in my research. First of all, let me say that I’ve been really campaigning the fact that we should not go all the way in one direction and forget the other. In the sense that we had 200 years in which we confined ourselves to so-called written sources. We should not say “oh now we only do objects”. In fact I have problems with students who create projects, sometimes PhDs projects, in which there are no sources but just the objects, because that’s very much undoable with traditional historical methodologies. And so I’ve argued that there should be an integration between objects, other types of sources and indeed visual sources as well.. Of course, I have “my favourite things”, so clearly some textiles have been quite fruitful in the research. Just to clarify, let us consider for instance, chronologies. We inherited some basic chronological narratives as in the case of the rise of the cotton textile industry in Britain that tend to be constructed in a very specific way, I realize. So in the book I’ve written on cotton, I made the point that the majority of these stories are based on the transformation of spinning, particularly the mechanisation of the spinning of cotton fibre in England. But if you go into the collections, what you see is actually a different story, it’s a story that starts a century earlier and starts with printing on Indian cotton cloth. So you have another industry that developed before spinning: that is the printing industry. Actually, that is totally rational from an economic point of view because most sectors first of all develop finishing because that’s where the value added is. So it actually fits very much an economic analysis. But it turns out that if you go out and consult a classic textbook of economic history it will talk only about spinning. So I tried to re-narrate the story starting in Britain a century earlier and then seeing actually how the printing goes back to India and so on. That couldn’t have been done without the artefacts. It would have been impossible to lead me to that conclusion and that type of argumentation. So I’m very grateful to the objects and the narrative they tell. However, it’s not a complete narrative but a narrative that is continuously revised. Again, the objects told me that there was an industry developing in the early 18th century but then I had to go back to archival sources and they told me a slightly different story again, that went back perhaps 25 years earlier and so on. This triangulation allows you to continuously revise this story that we call a historical narrative.

Materials and Techniques: Linen and cotton cloth printed from engraved copper plates, wood blocks and painted blue by Robert Jones & Co., Old Ford, Middlesex, England, 1769. Victoria and Albert Museum T.140-1934. Robert Jones was one of the major English calico printers. When he sold his business in 1780, the printworks occupied 67 acres and the assets included 200 copper plates and 2,000 blocks and prints.

Thank you very much for your time!

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