This post is a student contribution from Claudia Moser’s class ARCH 1764: 25 Things! 250 Years of Brown’s Material Past
Throughout the semester, the readings that have interested me the most have been those focused on discussing agency; specifically, the tension between objects and humans and gifts and commodities. Therefore, I decided to visit the exhibit in Manning Hall, which housed an exhibit containing various iconic pieces of Brown University’s history. The first and second photos are classified as academic regalia, which “symbolize both social and academic distinctions. Worn in academia’s most important ceremonies, regalia indicates differences of rank, accomplishment, and affiliation. At the same time, it cloaks individuality to refer to an egalitarian ideal. The meanings of gowns, hoods, and caps are governed by codes standardized at the turn of the 20th century.” In normal circumstances, I would argue that in most cases, it is the human who acts as the agent and influences the object. However, the academic gowns on display in Manning Hall made me reconsider. The design, material, and situation in which they are used have been the same for many many years, and though the people clad in these robes have undoubtedly changed, the meaning of the robes has hold steady through time. As Gell describes in Gosden’s article, “The Cultural Biography of Objects,” object can be seen as “social actors, in that they construct and influence the field of social action in ways which would not occur if they did not exist.” In this way, the robes can be seen as the social actors because they influence specific academic ceremonies that have stood the test of time. The individuals who wear these robes earn them – they embody the specific qualities of a leader and rise to the top of the academic hierarchy. Therefore, it can be argued that it is the robes that provide meaning to an academic ceremony, not the people in them.
Though the display in Manning Hall exhibited many Brown University treasures, the academic robes stood out to me because I will soon be seeing them at graduation. In other words, the sight of the robes triggered something inside me – it acted as the catalyst to my sadness. In this case, the object undoubtedly acted as the agent, and I a simple bystander.