Universities and Patina

Over the weekend, I re-read Shannon Dawdy’s book Patina: A Profane Archaeology. I blogged briefly about how this work shaped some of my views of the accelerated culture of the Bakken oil patch. But having read it again, and more closely, in preparation for a formal review, I was really struck by her description of New Orleans as a space of contest modernity where a pervasive interest in patina represents both a challenge to commodity capitalism and a willingness to complicate the conventions of linear time. In Dawdy’s analysis objects with patina are valued not simply because they’re old, but because they show signs of habitual use over time and the stories associated with that use remain embedded in their fabric and add value. This value emerges only in the space of the contemporary world where these objects circulate among individuals who recall, communicate, and add to the object’s story, and in the right time and context, these objects acquire far greater value than their utility or antiquity alone would suggest. Dawdy notes that the fetishization of these object “resists compulsive obsolescence and thus slows down consumption and discard.” In short, these objects have a kind of situated value that produce in collaboration with individuals who possess or know about them. Objects with patina continuously produce and depend upon various individual and broader social relations that provide them with meaning. 

I got to thinking about Dawdy’s definition of patina in the context of my work with the Wesley College Documentation Project on the campus of the University of North Dakota. One of the things that my exceptional class of students have encouraged me to see is that universities represent distinct spaces within American society where time and space work differently. On the one hand, this makes sense as university life continues to represent a rite of passage where students exist in moments of communitas, encounter liminal space, and negotiate one of the most obvious examples of heterotopia (and, Dawdy might add, chronotopia, where distinctive experience of time exist often fused to the distinctively heterotopic space of the university campus). Like New Orleans universities often prize and value patina whether officially celebrated in the old buildings or monuments on campus or associated with the traces of the collective experiences of students in less public, official, and obvious ways.  

Patina on university campuses embodies the kind of conflicted temporality that Dawdy saw in New Orleans as they oscillate between being the engines for social and economic progress and places of memory, tradition, and social cohesion. The tensions between functionality and tradition on college campuses goes beyond the simple practice of “invented traditions” which have a particularly visible place on college campuses. Traditions embodied in architecture, rituals, and practices (that sometimes defy official administrative efforts to suppress them) range from the persistent, monumental expressions of past aspirations to the gradual or even abrupt accumulation of meaning in unexpected places and spaces across campus.

Public universities much like New Orleans, also experience booms and busts, that leads to the uneven accumulation of buildings, objects, and experiences. At UND, a campus monument celebrates the the experience of students and faculty during the Great Depression and the post-War boom has left indelible marks in the buildings and spaces across campus and the persistence of certain familiar objects across campus – from desks to flickering florescent light fixtures – speaks to the various occasions of renovation and innovation. 

The Wesley College Documentation Project has observed various aspects of this kind of temporal mixing as students are both saddened to know that the university has plans to demolish Robertson/Sayre and Corwin/Larimore Halls. They are old – largely dating to the first decade of the 20th century – and have a distinct architecture and patina and for some have acquired a kind of right to exist on campus. For others, of course, these buildings are outmoded and obsolete. This embodies the tension between the functionality of the university and how it generates meaning to the university community.

At the same time, booms and busts are present throughout these buildings with the persistence of older furniture and even older technology either kept in reserve or actively in use suggesting a conscious effort to curate and extend the life of particular tools. What is curious in the 21st century on the campus of University of North Dakota is that the availability of surplusing is greatly reduced. This reflects both the limited market for older furniture, for example, on campus, and the growing preference for new furniture and the appearance of modernity on campus. Moreover, the new furniture, which is frequently particle board and fairly flimsy especially in comparison to mid-century steel desks is less likely to survive multiple moves across campus. Ironically, the absence of surplus space means that older furniture might be more likely to remain in circulation because at present, facilities does not have a convenient strategy for removing and recycling unused furniture.

The ability to recycle furniture is a more functional observation on the material culture of campus than the decision to preserve or destroy older buildings, but both of these approaches to campus space demonstrate differing concepts of time at play across a university campus. For the former, older office furnishing or technologies that haver persistent use value might be curated and recycled – especially in light of the boom/bust funding cycle provided by grants – but a preference is for newer furniture not because of its superiority in a functional sense, but because of its appearance of newness and contemporary professionalism. Campus buildings sometimes reflect these priorities as well, but thread-worn and patinated buildings likewise have value in that they embody traditional aspirations of universities with ancient practices and habits. Whereas old furniture might exude negative connotations associated with lack of resources or even unprofessional workspaces, old buildings represent the persistent values of a campus and respect for the past. These are not, however, accidental manifestations, any more than deliberate efforts to curate objects of persistent value, but decisions grounded in a strategy designed to shape student, alumni, and even faculty and staff appreciation of campus. Campus patina, then, emerges from multiple places ranging from administrative priorities, curation strategies, informal rituals of every day life, and various accidents that etch experiences into the physical fabric of the university in various social, spatial, and chronological contexts.  

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