Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Concluding Remarks: What is this thing?

What is this object?  We often limit ourselves to the material — Yes, it’s a headrest. It is made of carved wood and bamboo stalks. It was created near the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. However, concrete materiality is but a facet of what comprises this headrest. Objects are shaped and defined by their experiences — they adopt new meaning with every new use. Their significance and definition shift from owner to owner and location to location — this headrest, now on display in Nashville, Tennessee, is not the same object that was created as a functional item in Papa New Guinea. 

    Arjuk Appadurai, in his essay The Social Life of Things, concludes that, concerning objects, “meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories. It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things. Thus, even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance.” Your personal experience with this headrest is another chapter in its story, an addendum to its social life and influence. 

    This object has a twofold utility: it is both a headrest and a window. A headrest for the Sepik dreamer, the man who has just endured a bloody initiation ritual, the one who lays his head down to sleep and grow closer to the gods — and a window for the rest of us, those who come with curiosity to admire a culture that we have never encountered, ready to listen and add to this object’s rich biography.

This page has paths: