Handheld Objects


Bovine animals at a byre, Mesopotamia, 3400–3000 BC
Alabaster cylinder seal
Acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan Before 1909. Morgan Seal 2

Bovine animals at a byre, Mesopotamia, 3400–3000 BC
Modern impression
Acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan Before 1909. Morgan Seal 2

The New-England Primer Improved: or, an Easy and Pleasant Guide to the Art of Reading (Salem, [Mass.]: S. Hall, 1784)
PML 196387

Notebook containing decoratively configured locks of hair, 1860s
Bequest of Julia P. Wightman, 1994; MA 8597


Nina Katchadourian: It can be hard to know how to find your way into a collection and the Morgan is a vast place. So one of the strategies I decided to use, which has worked well for me before, is to just start with the question of who's already here and what do they know, and letting the people who have an intimate familiarity with a collection teach me about it. And that was a way into finding a lot of things that I wouldn't have known were at the Morgan. So in that spirit, I invited fifteen different Morgan staff members to sit down with me for a one hour conversation with an object that they had selected. I asked them to choose something that they felt an attachment to that they were excited to show me and to talk about. I've put a few of those things together here and one thing they have in common for me is their small handheld, rather intimately handled quality. The little tiny primer, which you can see by the way it's bound and by the way it’s repaired, has clearly been in somebody's pocket, has clearly been almost read to death and there was something really alluring to me about the way it's been used and preserved. And I like objects that reveal something about how they have been used or how they have lived. You could even say, and the primer is one of those objects for me. You can see by the wear and tear on its cover, by the stitching, by its very design being a small object. It's meant to be in your pocket and meant to be carried around. Its very appearance is sort of, its autobiography. It tells the story of its life and use.

When the curator of ancient seals and tablets brought out this Mesopotamian seal to show me, um, it was one of the most incredible handheld experiences that I had making this show. And I will never forget that he used the word buttery to describe its texture, which is very accurate.