Faculty explores material goods in culture

The Boldt Chair of Humanities Lecture Series kicked off Thursday, Sept. 17 in the Sun Ballroom with a host of presentations by St. Olaf faculty members. Each presentation regarded the importance of a certain physical object to the faculty members’ respective areas of study.

Oscar Boldt, contractor and chairman of The Boldt Group, Inc., founded the Boldt Chair in 1994 to honor a faculty member whose work advances the study of humanities at St. Olaf. The chairholder serves a three year term. The most recent recipient, Professor of Classics Steve Reece, organized this year’s lecture and luncheon series.

The topic of this year’s lectures centers around aspects of material culture. Reece and other faculty members chose this topic in an attempt to shift away from the the academy’s recent focus on broader, more abstract concepts (as often seen in fields such as philosophy and theology) to a focus on things that can be seen, smelled and touched (as in the fields of archaeology and museum studies).

“Our students spend so much time in virtual worlds, making virtual friends and creating virtual personas and communicating in digital impulses that they really crave something material. Something they can touch physically,” Reece said.

The lecture involved presentations from seven different faculty members, each discussing an object that has significance in their field. Professor Reece presented the first item, a Cycladic female figurine, dated back to about 2600 B.C. The discussion of the figurine centered around an ancient culture in Greece that held women in high regard.

Other objects included a included a Roman portrait bust, a Christogram, a representative lambrequin, a red ashtray and even a pair of Birkenstock sandals. Some of the items were physically presented in the room, while others were represented by photographs and descriptions.

Each item told a story about its origins and purpose. Birkenstocks, for example, were once considered very unfashionable despite being very comfortable, explained Professor of History Judy Kutulas. The counterculture of sporting the “untrendy” shoes clashed with the industry of high fashion; today, the shoes have been accepted and integrated into society.

Despite the variety, the obejects worked together to cohesively illustrate that materialistic culture is not a new concept. Humans use sculptures, decorations, art, clothes, tools and other objects to serve their needs and express themselves. Our material possessions provide insight into the culture and times in which we live. Through studying ancient artifacts and items from the past, we are can learn more about the people that created and owned them.

Audience members, who consisted pri- marily of faculty, found the lecture to be thought-provoking and creative.

“We look at materialism honestly as a kind of a negative statement, but what has been presented here is that it creates a lot of meaning,” said Sian Muir, director of management studies. “So objects can actually help movements or remove movements and all kinds of things. I think sometimes we need to think that materialism is part of what we do and collecting things is also part of what we do. Maybe we should think that it’s positive thing about society.”

The Boldt Lecture Series will continue with a second lecture and luncheon on Thursday, Oct. 15. Professor Reece will explain how some recently discovered ancient letters sent from a Roman fort illuminate St. Paul’s letter-writing in the 1st century. The event will be held in the Munich Room, and a light lunch will be provided.