"Just a Car": The Kennedy Car, the Lincoln Chair, and the Study of Objects
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Do all objects tell the truth? Are artifacts essential to the study of history? Can we understand the past by looking and examining the things people used and made, as Henry Ford believed? The study of material culture, which grew out of anthropology and the study of preliterate cultures, has had only a minor inbuence in the historical profession. Texts and, to a lesser degree, visual evidence have been the primary sources for the reconstruction of the historic past. What can the study of material culture offer the study of history? Although academic historians generally ignore objects as sources of evidence, museum curators often give primacy to the object and its interpretation. A museum curator might look at a steam traction engine and tell you what it “says.” However, what the steam engine “says” is altered through the curator’s deep knowledge of the topic. While material culturists might argue that “only artifacts preserve the authentic voice of the inarticulate ,”2 in truth, when the museum curator observes the steam traction engine, he or she sees it in the context of the history of steam power, agricultural history, the history of power sources, and all the other steam traction engines he or she has examined and studied. Members of the public from museumgoers to murder mystery readers are quite comfortable with the concept of artifacts as evidence. Physical evidence—an object found at the scene of a crime that solves the mystery—is a familiar plot twist in murder mysteries and gives rise to the phrase smoking gun. Similarly, a 1998 study of Americans and their connection to the past revealed that museumgoers believed that displayed objects, unmediated and without any interpretation, were a source of truthful information about the past.3 Before the Civil War, most museums were “cabinets of curiosities” and Barnumesque freak shows. They displayed objects, such as two-headed snakes, for their shock value rather than for their educational signiacance . In the late eighteenth century, however, Charles Willson Peale established what is considered the arst true museum in the United States, the American Museum in Philadelphia. Peale believed in the primacy of objects, and his museum took an unusual approach for its time, displaying natural history specimens according to the Linnaean method. Peale’s museum, with its orderly rows of plant and animal specimens, was designed to instruct rather than titillate its visitors. The object without context was the text. (Unfortunately, however, the American Museum did not survive into the second half of the nineteenth century.)4 After the Civil War, museums revived the Peale model and strived to present an intelligent, orderly world. They replaced the collections of the bizarre and the freakish 245 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ “Just a Car” The Kennedy Car, the Lincoln Chair, and the Study of Objects Judith E. Endelman ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ By looking at the things that people used and the way they lived, a better and truer impression can be gained in an hour than could be had from a month of reading.1 with rational, systematic displays. These exhibits rebected the assumption that objects could tell stories and that objects as much as text were sources of knowledge and meaning. Museum curators laid out rows of objects in glass cases in a precise relationship intended to convey a narrative history. These museums sought to teach visitors about the natural world through a close observation of ordered specimens. As William Wilson, founder and director of Philadelphia’s Commercial Museum, wrote to Edward Everett Ayer of Chicago’s Field Museum, “All museum material should speak for itself upon sight. It should be an open book which tells a better story than any description will do.”5 The thing itself, unexplained, unmediated, and uninterpreted, was seen as the source of knowledge and understanding. Not just casual visitors but also scholars and scientists could learn their discipline from a close examination of objects rather than through the lens of existing scholarship. Louis Agassiz, a Harvard natural scientist, would introduce a new student to the study of zoology by presenting him with a ash in a specimen pan and instructing him to “Look at the ash! Look at the ash!” From direct observation and examination, Agassiz maintained , the student could begin to acquire knowledge of the aeld.6 Henry Ford believed that the past lives of ordinary people could be understood not by reading about them but by examining the objects they made and used. Ford believed that artifacts, not documents or books, could tell the “real” American...