Big Berks 2014

This weekend I am participating in the 16th Berkshires Conference. Held at the University of Toronto (and the Art Gallery of Ontario!) this is the first year the conference is being held outside the United States. With the theme of “Histories on the Edge” over 2000 participants and 100 sponsors and university departments will be exploring issues as war-displaced, immigrant and migrating women; transgressive women; women and psychiatry; reproductive health; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) histories. 

“Big Berks” not only supports the telling of women’s histories but it also supports the work of women historians. Nearly eighty years ago a marginalized group of female professors participated in informal retreats in the Northeastern United States, that would come to be called the “Little Berks.” During the 1960s and 70s second-wave feminists reframed the gatherings as the Berkshire Conference or “Big Berks” – formal meetings that presented women’s histories and gender as legitimate subjects of historical inquiry, bridged gaps in scholarship and most importantly solidified women’s roles as respected academics. 

In keeping with the conference theme of “critical edges – sharpening, de-centering, decolonizing histories,” the panel I have organized examines visual and material transculturations in various colonial projects on the margins of the early modern Dutch world. This investigation maps the cultural networks created, disrupted and adapted by the production and consumption of both biographical goods and also public commodities. With an attention to the materiality of the “things” made and exchanged at home and overseas, we will observe the translations in styles, changes in conventions and shifts in popular tastes that occurred as goods circulated through the international commerce first established by the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) and Dutch West India Company (West Indische Compagnie or WIC), and continued through both official and other trade routes well into the eighteenth century.

In the first presentation Chi-ming Yang examines chinoiserie design books and lacquer and ceramic objects alongside the atlases to explore intersections between chinoiserie ornament and early modern ideas of race. Next Martha Chaiklin utilizes Dutch and Japanese trade documents and Japanese contemporary accounts to demonstrate how early modern trade greatly impacted the material culture of Japan fueling a consumer revolution. The last speaker Dawn Odell will examine a range of domestic goods related to dinner parties to demonstrate how the material culture of the home defined social status and gender relationships in seventeenth and eighteenth century Batavia. Finally, Benjamin Schmidt will comment on the implications for “things” made manifest on edges through “rough encounters [and] jagged conflicts as well as intimate exchanges”. While focusing on three different yet interrelated material histories on the edge of early modern trade networks, these papers contribute to a larger discussion focusing on the ways gender, race and class were conceived of as a result of new goods and also how these social, political economic and cultural shifts were reflected in visual and material cultures.



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