Objects as narrative
By news editor, on 24 January 2012
Dean Sully, Lecturer in Conservation, UCL Institute of Archaeology.
Monday 16 January saw the latest event in the Institute of Archaeology’s popular 75th Anniversary programme with Liz Pye, Professor of Archaeological Conservation, providing an autobiographic picture of object biography, in her inaugural lecture.
This was a richly personal account of Liz’s intellectual journey from school girl archaeologist to what many consider to be conservation’s foremost teacher. This lecture centred on Liz’s joy of understanding objects and her pleasure in revealing the links between people and objects.
It was a long awaited opportunity for her colleagues, family and legion of past students to celebrate her achievements and her contribution to UCL and to the discipline of conservation.
It is clear that an understanding of the world of objects lies deeply within Liz’s biological and intellectual DNA. Objects are central actors in this story, coming from a family where objects were always in “the making or the mending…”, growing up amongst “the tools and wood shavings of my father’s workshop…”, is key to Liz’s ability to tell these deeply human object stories.
In this lecture, Liz provided rich and textured accounts of objects as evidence of live performance, including South African pennies, a Wilcox and Gibbs sewing machine (“Mutton-mutton”), a carved house beam, a Windsor chair, the Portland Vase, Nelson’s Coat, Mary Rose and HMS Victory.
Anonymous makers were interlinked, through their objects, with Liz’s family members (including great parents and her children) and her intellectual family (including Gordon Childe and Henry Hodges).
Special reference was made to the work of Liz’s father, David Pye, in illuminating the details of makers and the material evident in the object that reveal an understanding of past events by their survival in the present. These are the products of the “workmanship of risk” that the conservation process is able to reveal.
Liz’s interest in objects, and what they can tell us about ourselves and the world around, is central to her passion for conservation. Conservation changes objects, changes these narratives and is, therefore, a significant life event in the biography of the object.
Liz poses a challenge to conservators to attempt to capture and transmit some of the intimate knowledge of using objects through touch, feel, sound, smell and function, which were inherent in her personal object stories. This reflects her focus on the benefits of physical encounters with objects that has helped conservators to overcome an established fear of damage caused to the objects in our care.
Liz’s enjoyment of teaching is palpable in her enthusiasm for the narrative quality of objects and their conservation. This clearly reflects her passion for the creation of objects, their understanding through scientific methods and the social responsibility that conservation can promote. It is this passion that has inspired legions of students that have passed through her care and continues to inspire future conservators.
Professor Pye’s lecture is one of a series of 75th anniversary inaugural lectures being held in 2012 to mark the Institute’s 75 years leading global archaeology. Further details of all anniversary events are available on the Institute’s dedicated 75th anniversary webpages.