Objects and their meaning

A visit of two museum exhibitions

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Photo: MNBAQ

Workshop of the Ursulines of Québec, Chasuble said to have been of the Jesuits, c1723. Augustines of the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec

Material culture is that segment of man’s physical environment which is purposely shaped by him according to a culturally dictated plan.” James Deetz (1930-2000)

We travel and often purchase souvenirs to bring back home.  This acquisition of material things is a way for us to remember and represent the places and the people we visited.  Museums, fulfilling their missions in our communities, have the possibility to make us travel through the display of objects from their collections or brought in on loan as a way to introduce us to a place, a culture, a time.  Two major museums in Quebec city, the Musée national des beaux arts du Quebec and the Musée de la civilisation de Quebec are presently showing a selection of objects that were touched by history: specifically that of New France at the MNBAQ and more broadly Canada at the MCQ.

This is, for us an excellent opportunity to appreciate the meaning of objects, the way they express the lifestyle of the time and the people to which they belong or are associated with.  The objects on display have lived on; they have passed between people through time and space and are now in public collections where they are no longer in use, preserved for their meaning or value as symbols.

They are part of a personal and/or our collective history.  Some show physical sign of use. Among them are emblem of status such as portraits, silversmith’s pieces, and other insignia of power such as uniforms, a bishop’s mitre, a chasuble or again the ceremonial headgear of an Indian chief.  The historical context, when it is personal, gives them the value and emotional tone of a souvenir.  Among the objects now displayed are also religiously infused images (paintings, tapestries and sculptures) and gold and silver church ornaments. Because of the important presence of indigenous populations in the history of Quebec as well as that of Canada, Amerindian artefacts are also exhibited recapturing for us the fabric of everyday life of these ethnic groups.

Besides their historical value, their partaking in historical events and, at times, their aftermaths, these objects can be seen simply for their material qualities: what they are made of and more generally their sensual appeal. Made by the human hand or by the use of any particular technology to give them form, they are undeniable reflection of the resourcefulness and or the creative expression of their time.

Visiting these two exhibitions:   Fine arts of New France (‘till march 2013) at the MNBAQ and Reference objects at the MCQ (‘till September of 2013) will give the public the possibility to comprehend the relation between individual response (their own) and the general social consensus of meaning.  It will be a way to understand what, in fact, is the role of curators:  making us experiment what, in their own terms, is the “power of real things”, this property that provides strength to the objects they care for and exhibit.

Catalogues of both exhibitions are available.