NYC’s Gilded Ages uses the material resources from the New-York Historical Society, instructional support for contemporary digital technologies from the International Center of Photography, and the landscape of New York City, to examine what objects from both Gilded Ages reveal about the lives of those who used them, thereby further deepening our understanding of the eras at large. The course first took place during the fall of 2015, and it will continue to be offered to students at Barnard College. The fall 2015 course constructed this digital exhibit, which is constituted by pointed comparisons of paired objects from both Gilded Ages, in order to highlight nuanced connections and differences between the Ages. Each course iteration will use a different theme to explore New York City’s Gilded Ages and will draw upon the extensive collections, archival holdings, and digital resources of the New‑York Historical Society Museum and Library.
This particular exhibition explores cultural changes through material objects of personal adornment such as clothing and accessories. Students researched one object each from the First Gilded Age utilizing the vast archival resources of the New-York Historical Society as well as other printed and digital sources. Inspired by the themes they uncovered about each historical object, students then chose one related contemporary object that resonated with their First Gilded Age artifact. They researched their Second Gilded Age objects via documentary, digital, and ethnographic research. Each student individually produced text about their own object pairs for the digital exhibit. Then, students worked in class to determine how their object pairs related to their classmates’ and what kinds of conceptual ideas they conveyed about both Gilded Ages. They then chose four main ideas or themes, and grouped their object pairings under the best-fitting rubrics. The themes they chose are Borrowing Symbols, Keeping Up Appearances, Obscured Origins, and Theatrics of the Self. Each theme page contains an introduction to the theme written collaboratively by the students who chose to present their object pairs within those groupings.
Careful attention was paid to each object’s place on both macro and micro levels, meaning that each student made an attempt to relate other objects to overarching urban issues such as labor and contested space as well as to the personal meanings these objectives have (or had) for those who used them. The students focused most upon how urban individuals use (or used) these objects to negotiate their own identities (e.g., class, gender, ethnicity, and race) and social places in their respective Gilded Age. Common to many themes are the ideas of public presentation, identity construction, and hidden methods of production.