You are what you own and inhabit

House Life - Material Memories
November 3, 2000

In a world of globalised markets, consumerism and technology, it is no surprise that anthropology is increasingly concerned with the materialities of life. In these two books, we see how the organisation of matter represents, symbolises and shapes our physical and emotional lives - from the jewellery we wear to the photographs we take and the domestic spaces we build and inhabit. The study of material culture inevitably has a broad remit, but by focusing always on "the object", it reveals the complexities and minutiae of social life from often unexpected perspectives. We begin to perceive how objects and people become a unity and by so doing we redefine our understanding of the variety of cultural activity through time and space.

The definitive "object" of human life is arguably the domestic space we create for ourselves to live in. Houses are concrete configurations of meaning, altered by and altering the people who inhabit them. Their physicality can exert powerful influences on individual and collective (family) behaviour, as well as represent and objectify notions of wealth and security, social status and investment. The investigation of social space draws on anthropology, archaeology, geography and history, and reveals that the house is not an inert backdrop to social action but a pro-active part of the process.

House Life: Space, Place and Family in Europe, edited by Donna Birdwell-Pheasant and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga, explores the materiality of lived relations through the lens of the domestic from Ireland to Serbia, Portugal to Greece. Europe's well-documented history, its mix of peoples, ethnicities and religions, combined with the disruptions of two world wars, is a rich focus for attention. As I write, Serbia is becoming a democracy and international embargoes are being lifted - a potent blend of the internal and external that will soon be reflected in Belgrade homes.

In an incisive and comprehensive introduction, the editors review the status of household studies. They acknowledge Levi-Strauss's recognition that contradictory forces are at work in the house and the impossibility of separating family from household. The fact that dwelling means living among traces of past lives is embodied in the late Alfred Gell's point that houses are the "distributed personhood" of their makers.

Against this background the editors set the varied levels of discourse and modernity in Europe, emphasising the commodification and homogenisation of house forms and the role of house inheritance in the economic and symbolic constitution of the family group over time.

Each contributor offers unique insights into how the relationships between people and things creates a home. Lawrence Taylor chronicles the "west room" - a feature of farm houses in rural west Ireland that is the focus of inalienable family goods and heirlooms. Here, objects of sentimental value such as marriage photos are placed alongside fine furniture and religious items, creating a space into which only distinguished guests are invited. In Serbia, we see how the cultural habits of ancestral village life - the multi-generational zadruga-type family - are transformed through confrontation and compromise by living in Belgrade's government-owned and regulated apartment houses. On the Greek island of Chios, talk of the house, its past and present configuration and its potentially compartmentalised future is a central feature of everyday life. In Chios, as everywhere else covered in this book, houses are physical and symbolic places whose articulation within and between families and with the wider community are imbued with social meanings.

The role of objects as triggers of memory is explored in Material Memories: Design and Evocation edited by Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward and Jeremy Aynsley. The book itself is a "memory object", commemorating a 1998 conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The strengths of a "material culture studies" approach are much in evidence in chapters that range from the gendered control of household goods in Rennaissance Florence, 17th-century construction of civic memory in Norwich, to the reworking of the R.M.S. Titanic as an underwater exhibit. Focusing on the concept of the souvenir, the diversity of topics stimulates the imagination and problematises wider issues of how objects make people just as people make objects.

Susan Stewart launches an erudite critique of the role of the senses in apprehending the outside world, noting that the senses themselves are shaped and modified by experience and matter beyond the body. Bodily adornment is one of the most personal ways in which the body-as-object can be rearranged, and then advertised to the world. Public personas and private feelings reinforce the notion that you are what you wear.

Marcia Pointon explores one aspect of this in her examination of "mourning jewellery". She recognises the peculiar potency of human remains as museum objects, regarding them, in part, as a massive collective defence against death. The discussion is brought into focus by an analysis of elaborate 19th-century bracelets of plaited human hair that she interprets as a "mummification of desire".

The construction of memory on a grander scale is seen in Deborah Ryan's account of Frank Lascelles. Lascelles changed his name and identity, becoming famous as "the man who staged the empire" in huge pageants between 1907 and 1932 - reinventing and re-presenting the empire and himself at the same time. The fortune he made built his manor house, which was invested like a museum with solid memories of his achievements and imperial objects. These detailed and complementary books dealing with the materialisation of human emotions and behaviours in all kinds of artefacts, reveal new and insightful ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Nicholas J. Saunders is senior research fellow, depart-ment of Anthropology, University College London.

House Life: Space, Place and Family in Europe

Editor - Donna Birdwell-Pheasant and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga
ISBN - 1 85973 230 5/235 6
Publisher - Berg
Price - £39.99/£14.99
Pages - 265

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