Blunt and brutal, the mace is traditionally seen as a weapon of war. But in other contexts it can be seen as a symbol of authority—perhaps through its original association with conquest. Brown University’s mace falls into this second category (Mitchell 1993). An intricate piece wrought in gold and brass, the mace weighs over twenty pounds and is 44 inches long (Simmons 2015; Brown University Website; Mitchell 1993). The mace is covered in script and symbols. At the top is a double urn—topped by a double eagle and ball. On the urn is the seal of the university surrounded by laurel leaves. The head of the mace itself depicts the coat of arms of both Great Britain and the United States, the seal of the Colony of Rhode Island, the seal of the State of Rhode Island, and two older seals that once represented Brown (Mitchell 1993; Simmons 2015). The staff is adorned with scallops and a ribbon with the names of former presidents and chancellors inscribed upon it (Mitchell 1993). The form of the object alone clearly indicates that this object is heavily laden with meaning. However, “objects become invested with meaning through the social interactions they are caught up in. These meanings change and are renegotiated through the life of an object” (Gosden and Marshall 1999: 170). Thus, the true scope of meanings for this mace cannot be understood without an appreciation of its wider contexts. This particular object is only brought out on certain occasions—inauguration, convocation, commencement, and anniversaries (Simmons 2015). An examination of such critical points in the life of this mace will reveal a portion of its mutable meanings.
Figure 1: The Head of Brown University’s Mace
There is one singular moment that all things share—the point of creation. For this mace this occurred in 1928 (Mitchell 1993). At the time Brown was finally establishing itself as University with clout—becoming ever wealthier and more powerful (Simmons 2015). It had become an institution worthy of a material symbol of authority. The mace was commissioned by Mrs. George St. John Sheffield, designed by Robert Hall, modeled by Hugo Carlborg, and manufactured by the Gorham Company. Mrs. Sheffield subsequently gave it to the university (Mitchell 1993). This moment is crucial as, “gifts always maintain some link to the person or people who first made them and the people who have subsequently transacted them” (Gosden and Marshall 1999: 173). Through the giving of the mace Mrs. Sheffield permanently intertwined herself, and all who had a hand in its creation, with the biography of the mace. Through the inclusion of Brown’s past seals, presidents, chancellors, and national affiliations the mace acts as a material representation of what Brown was. Therefore the creators are not simply intertwined with some ceremonial object. Rather, they are linked with Brown and all its history—a history within which they have cemented themselves through the gifting of the mace. The mace acts as a symbol of their newfound material connection to the university. After this initial moment of creation and transition the mace entered into the role it has held since—as part of Brown’s ensemble of ceremonial regalia. As part of this assemblage it emerges to act and be acted upon for only a few occasions (Brown University Website).
The first of these is the inauguration of a new university president. At this event the president is presented with all their new regalia—although they do not hold on to the mace for long (Brown University Website). It is important to remember that the president may be a complete newcomer to Brown at this point. Gosden and Marshall claim that the fame of objects and the renown of people are mutually creating so that, “objects gain value through links to powerful people and an individual’s standing is enhanced through possession of well-known objects” (Gosden and Marshall 1999: 170). As part of Brown’s ceremonial regalia the mace would accrue the symbolic authority of all who carried and commanded its use in the past. Possession by the new president would immediately enhance their authority. The President’s first decision in their newfound position of authority is to determine who will have the honor of bearing the mace—it must be a faculty member who is also a Brown alumnus or alumna (Brown University Website). Just as they will assist in the determination of Brown’s path for the duration of their position they determine the path of the mace. As the mace is a representation of Brown and its history this first decision becomes a symbolic representation of the authority of the president over Brown. Following this ceremony the mace is put away until the mace is ready to welcome a new cohort of students through Brown’s doors.
This takes place at convocation. The mace is carried in procession—held by the mace-bearer at the fore of the presidential party (Simmons 2015). In this context it serves once more to establish authority. It highlights the upper levels of Brown’s hierarchy for new students. Visually stunning, the mace provides material evidence of who will serve as the leaders of the new cohort. Its position at the head of the procession of newcomers gives it a new meaning unique to the new students. It becomes a guide to this new strange place. It welcomes them to Brown and gives them direction. From the perspective of these students the symbols adorning the mace are likely completely alien, although they may become more familiar as they spend more time within Brown’s social sphere. But to the unexposed mind these unfamiliar symbols act as a representation of knowledge that will be gained through their attendance of the university. For many of these students this is the only time they will see the mace for a period of four years.
At the end of this period the mace reenters their lives at the commencement ceremony. In the interim these students seldom, if ever, see the mace as it is only brought out each year for convocation and commencement (Simmons 2015). This sequestration may serve to heighten the impact the mace has on this particular audience. It first appeared to guide them into the strange and new social sphere, and now it has emerged once again, but this time it leads them back out into the world. Kopytoff argues that singularization does not guarantee sacralization (Kopytoff 1986: 74). But this mace is not only a singular object to these students. It has had a role in two of the largest rituals in their lives. Through this association the mace becomes a sacred artifact. To these students the mace has become not just a symbol of authority, or a material representation of Brown’s history; it has become a marker of transitory periods in their lives. At the first transition it welcomes them, but at the second it takes on a slightly modified role. Certainly the mace still leads them for a period, but after exiting the Van Wickle gates the presidential party—regalia and all—pulls to the side and begins to applaud (Simmons 2015; Brown University Website). What once were distant leaders glimpsed only at the head of the procession are now visible to each student as they pass by and receive praise. The students are no longer followers, but new leaders who deserve acknowledgment. The mace thus indicates to these new graduates all they have accomplished in their time at Brown. In addition the graduates impart new meaning on the mace, as they become part of the history it represents.
These last two ceremonies illustrated the regular yearly lifecycle of the mace. But there are more irregular, sporadic ceremonies that center around it. One such ceremony can be found in Simmons’ final ritual of Brown—the anniversary (Simmons 2015). At Brown’s 250th anniversary the mace was put on display for an entire year in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s exhibit “In Deo Speramus” (Simmons 2015). It was displayed with other symbols and ceremonial regalia. In this context it is no longer a direct symbol of authority. Nor is it a symbol of transition. Instead of being paraded and passed the mace is shut away in a display case. It becomes an object of scrutiny for all who attend the exhibit. Each year the mace accrues new meaning as more and more events and people are entwined with the history it represents. The display provides a time for reflection on all this history. It is consistently evolving as a repository of scholarly knowledge that can only truly be disseminated through frozen moments like this exhibit.
The mace’s biography is thus constructed of a repeating cycle of ceremonies interspersed with singular moments—like its creation and display. It has been shown that this lifecycle does not endow the mace with one singular meaning. Instead, a myriad of meanings are constructed based on the context of the mace’s use, and its relationships to those involved. After all, “biography is relational and an object biography is comprised of the sum of the relationships that constitute it” (Joy 2009: 552). This is not to say, however, that this biography is complete. Each year new relationships to this object are formed, and others modified. In addition, this biography focused on the more internal mutable meanings of the object. To those outside Brown’s social sphere the object certainly holds other meanings. When it comes to the biography of an active artifact it seems there will always be other positions to consider.
Brown University Mace. In Brown Univeristy: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Accessed October 30, 2016. www.brown.edu/research/facilities/haffenreffer-museum.
Gosden, Chris, and Yvonne Marshall. “The Cultural Biography of Objects.” World Archaeology 31, no. 02 (October 1999): 169-78.
“History of Brown’s Commencement.” Brown Univeristy. Accessed October 27, 2016. www.brown.edu.
“In Deo Speramus.” Address, Curator’s Tour of “In Deo Speramus”, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Providence, October 26, 2016. June 09, 2015.
“Inauguration Traditions.” Brown Univeristy. Accessed October 27, 2016. www.brown.edu.
Joy, Jody. “Reinvigorating Object Biography: Reproducing the Drama of Object Lives.” World Archaeology 41, no. 4 (2009): 540-56.
Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” In The Social Life of Things, edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Mitchell, Martha. “Mace.” Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Brown University Library, 1993.