The Mobility of Objects Project

How can everyday objects from the past inform historical inquiry? Can a key, floor tiles, a pair of shoes or a religious token tell us things about commerce and belief? And can these common items influence the way history is taught?

Yes, according to 'Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries, 1000-1700' (MOB) – an interdisciplinary project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which looks at material culture in the period AD 1000-1700, and in particular the movement of objects. Dr Leah Clark, Director of Studies in History of Art, is a co-investigator on the project with Dr Katherine Wilson of the University of Chester.

‘My research interests have long been focused around collecting in the Renaissance’ says Dr Clark. ‘Many objects didn’t stay in one collection very long as they were often used as collateral and were pawned or sold when funds were required. I’m interested in the stories objects tell as they move from person to person or around the globe. This sparked the initial idea behind the project: how can we tell a story about the mobility of objects rather than their beginning or their end?’

Many common objects, such as keys, floor tiles and religious items were mass produced and used by many groups of people – and yet have not been extensively studied. These small objects help us to challenge elite historical narratives and allow us to engage with the living, social world of the past.

Some of these objects are ones we still use today. Keys, for example, may have been used to unlock doors to homes, churches and businesses; smaller keys may have been used for caskets and boxes. They were likely worn or kept on the body, used to protect different spaces as well as more personal items and valuables.

Pilgrim badges and devotional tokens demonstrate the mobility of medieval and Renaissance people, their travels to other places over long distances and the objects they brought back as reminders of those places and experiences, similar to souvenirs we might bring back from our travels today.

Shoes reflect changes in fashion and taste across the Middle Ages and into the early Modern period. A close look at shoes also reveals traces of the former owner, for instance, where toes have stretched the leather, or stitch holes that indicate where the shoe was repaired.

An exhibition of Mobility of Objects at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester (from which most of the objects were drawn), opened in spring 2022 and has now been transferred to Chester Cathedral, where it will run from 22 August 2022 to 18 September 2022.

For those who can’t attend in person, the Mobility of Objects website provides an immersive experience for online visitors, including augmented reality to help viewers picture the items in use, and to understand what the Medieval City of Chester would have looked like to householders, pilgrims and traders. The project’s book is also in press and will be out shortly: Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries 1000-1700, Liverpool University Press, 2022.

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Published 26 August 2022