What it Is vs. What it Represents

By Carley Chan

Material culture is the belief that objects hold greater value than their intended function. In The Queen of Versailles, the size and grandeur of the Siegels’ current and dream homes are public displays of wealth and power. Though Jackie Siegel claims that moving into the biggest home in America will give the family some “much needed space,” she also describes the 90,000 square foot house, modeled and named after Versailles, as a tribute to her husband’s life achievements. While touring the half-finished home, Jackie rattles off the impressive prices of various fixtures – as if to imply that a window is more than a window if it costs a few million dollars. But as she wobbles up the grandiose staircase, the Siegels’ dream seems more ridiculous than impressive. Versailles is so over-the-top that it barely registers as a home; the dissonance between practicality and extravagance seems too large to bridge.

At the Merchant’s House Museum in Manhattan, material culture is evident in the stark contrast between the lavish ground floor seen by guests and the practical living arrangement of the basement, accessible only by family members and servants. Though both floors were furnished more or less by the same objects, namely chairs, couches, tables, lamps, drapes, etc., appearances were much more important on the upper floor. Compared to the elaborate and modern front rooms, the basement was surprisingly plain and simple. The most luxurious item was a couch that had once been displayed upstairs, but was deemed out of style and thus moved out of the public view.

In the cases of Versailles and the Merchant’s House, the gap between household objects’ intrinsic and extrinsic purposes are enormous. However, this gap cannot be completely written off as a result of a bourgeois world view. As Ann Cvetkovich writes in “In the Archives of Lesbian Feelings,” “affects – associated with nostalgia, personal memory, fantasy, and trauma – make a document significant. The archive of feelings is both material and immaterial, at once incorporating objects that might not ordinarily be considered archival.” Material culture exists in almost all domestic spaces. The worth we assign to our belongings can be used to explain, in part, how a house becomes a home for the people who live in it, and how this distinction is visually represented to the outside world.

This oven is one of my mom’s prized possessions – she frequently says that if she ever moves, she is taking the oven with her. As a stay-at-home mom whose hobby is food, my mom spends a lot of time in the kitchen. Unlike the Merchant’s House family, whose kitchen was hidden in the basement as a part of domesticity inappropriate for public viewing, my mom is proud to be able to provide good food to her family and guests. The reliable appliances that make this possible are naturally important to her as well.

These Chinese calligraphy scrolls are just a few of the many that hang all over my house. Because they are displayed in the room closest to our front door, they are visible to anyone that walks in. I have gotten remarks that my house looks “very Chinese” or “very cultural” and have also been asked what the scrolls say, where my family is from, and if my parents can speak English. The “Chineseness” of the decorations in my house seem to raise questions about the Americanness of my family, despite the fact that we all speak fluent English and only my dad can read what is written on the scrolls.

The decoration that hangs at our front door changes periodically with the season or occasion. This particular one was set out a few weeks ago to welcome Spring. It is also supposed to give the impression that my family responsibly attends to the upkeep of our house. In other words, we are not one of those neglectful families that leave our Christmas decorations out until March. Due to the fact we ourselves rarely see the outside of our front door, the decoration is almost exclusively for our neighbors’ viewing… though I have a feeling they rarely notice.

This post was completed as part of an assignment interpreting the “material culture” of home, and how objects, keepsakes, and ephemera from our domestic lives contribute to our social identities. For additional information on the assignment, please visit: https://americanstudiesmediacultureprogram.wordpress.com/the-concept-of-home-spring-2014-the-archeology-of-home/

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