This past weekend we went to see the “Treasured Possessions” exhibit at the Fitzwilliam Museum here in Cambridge. I enjoyed it, although perhaps not as much as I enjoyed “Silent Partners.” That is more about me than about the exhibit, though.
As trade boomed in the late medieval and Renaissance periods, and particularly in the wake of the rise of long-distance trade in the 16th century, types of display that had previously been reserved for the fantastically wealthy began to appear in more and more homes. And as these types of display — fine china, fancy glassware, etc., etc. — became more common, they also spawned new ways of
showing off performing identities. The later part of the period this exhibition covers is when you get the idea of shopping as a leisure activity, for instance. This is the period where brand awareness becomes a thing. Check out the elaborate logos on these trade bills from the mid-late 18th century, for instance:
(Incidentally, the museum’s Youtube channel has some fascinating stuff on there. Noted for later.)
So on the one hand you get to look at a lot of fancy shoes and codpieces and plates (I can never get excited about plates. I’m not a true baller, I guess.) and watches and fans and what have you, but on the other hand it’s within a context of exploring a particular historical theme, so you don’t just feel like you’re indulging in some Jane-Austen-TV-show historical romanticism. (Not a criticism; there are shows I definitely watch for the hats.)
I wasn’t entirely sure how this culture of display differed from similar display in the actual middle ages; I agree that when I think about the two periods I feel like there’s a difference, but I couldn’t actually tell you what it is, and I worry that the perceived difference depends on a stereotypical difference between the medieval and Renaissance periods that doesn’t actually exist. Have to think about that one a little longer.
It also pleased me that the story of how incipient rich jerks collected exotic, imported stuff in the incipient modern world was being told in a museum, one of a class of institutions that basically exists because even richer jerks needed to differentiate themselves from the penny-ante would-be rich jerks who bought all this consumer tat. “Oh, you bought an ivory Japanese knicknack? That’s cute. I bought a hundred of them and then I gave them away, because I’m a man of refinement and you’re a bourgeois striver.”*
Anyway, it’s good, it’s relatively small — not a bad thing; we really ran out of time during “Silent Partners” — and it’s free, so check it out before it ends in September.