the automobile as document

This is one of a series of comments on the 8th biennial symposium “Connoisseurship and the Collectible Car” held at the Revs Institute for Automotive Research in Naples, Florida in March 2015. [Link]

The skill set of the sophisticated collector

Miles Collier took us round some of the cars in the collection of the Revs Institute to show how artifacts are kinds of documents that can be subject to close reading.

The case of the 1966/1967 Ford GT40 Mark II-B 1031/1047

The palimpsest of paint on the body of the car witnesses the races of 1966 and 1967.

The life of the car written in its material fabric


sebring 66

Ford GT 40 MarkII-B 067



11 -_DSC0692 (1)

10 - Restoration by FAV Ford GT40-15

Miles also showed how we might use careful inspection and reading of a vehicle’s material form to confirm its history and authenticity. Comparison of minute details of the collection’s 1971 Porsche 917K with period photographs confirms its identity and permits us to use the vehicle as an historical source.

This is a kind of source criticism – the close reading of ancient manuscripts to identify authentic historical references and information – close reading and attention to a text to determine whether it’s a reliable witness or not, by seeking internal contradictions or finding corroboration through other sources, for example.

Material traces can be read as signs. From traces and remains we can infer events, and so much more – like a detective investigating a crime, we can piece together evidences (traces and remains) to recreate sequences of events with their protagonists and motivations, even their dreams and emotions.

Of course, if the traces and remains are removed or lost, through restoration, for example, we will no longer be able to read the past in a vehicle.

Our tour of the Revs galleries reminded me of some key features of my discipline of archaeology. The principle that material form is a kind of text is a mainstay of the archaeological sciences.

At the end of the eighteenth century passion for ancient Greece and Rome was expressed by collection, imitation of ancient works of art, and study of literary sources: the collector, the artist, and the philologist were the three symbolic figures of antiquarian curiosity. A key component of the emergence of archaeological science in the middle of the nineteenth century was to bring these three figures and their skills together in a new way – to apply the skills of the reader, the literary/linguistic expert to material artifacts held in collections, and to have this happen in the new academic institutions of modern nation states.

In the field of design, museums like the Victoria and Albert in London inspired the likes of Owen Jones’s extraordinary compilation of the decorative arts – his book “The Grammar of Ornament”. Things can have a structure just like that of the grammar that lies behind language.

And then from the 1970s I was one of many who took this up in a new way – to treat artifacts as communicative media, material culture as text. Things, in their making and form carry information, meaning and messages. Culture is all about communication. I looked at how perfume jars in the early days of the Greek city states of the Mediterranean were signs of their times, conveying messages about their makers and users, beliefs and values, aspirations and plans of the citizens of these new communities.

Cars do indeed also convey messages to us, of course – about who we are, and what we aspire to be, as well as about their times.

My friend Bjørnar Olsen has written a great book about all this in archaeology – [Link] – taking us further into ideas about how we get on with things in our lives.

And here is Alain Schnapp on Eduard Gerhard, one of the first to make the connection between the world of the collector and philologist, back in 1850:




car collection – connoisseurship and archaeology

This is one of a series of comments on the 8th biennial symposium “Connoisseurship and the Collectible Car” held at the Revs Institute for Automotive Research in Naples, Florida in March 2015. [Link]

The symposia at the Revs Institute bring together people passionate about collecting cars, passionate about thinking deeply around questions of conservation and restoration, historical significance, value and attraction, how to keep these machines running. And why this matters to us all.

This year I’m joining a wonderful group of faculty to facilitate the conversations among the 60 collectors here with us in Naples – restoration experts Eddie Berrisford and Paul Russell, trends analyst Jonathan Chavez, car connoisseur, artist, Revs founder Miles Collier, conservator Malcolm Collum (Smithsonian), chemical engineer Owen Falk (Stanford), auto aficionado and Revs VP Scott George, President of Historic Vehicle Association Mark Gessler, classic car collector and expert David Gooding, champion to the car collector community McKeel Hagerty, media strategist and publisher John Lavine (Northwestern), collector enthusiast, writer and publisher Keith Martin, information designer Peter Mangiafico (Stanford), motor sports enthusiast Nick Mason, motor racing journalist Doug Nye, information scientist Bob Schwarzwalder (Stanford), designer Peter Stevens, auto enthusiast and collector car market specialist David Swig.


What’s on the agenda?

As Mark Gessler has put it, we’re seeing car collecting evolve from hobby to heritage. Old cars are being taken more seriously than ever.

And with this comes more and more sophistication regarding key questions of what cars to collect, why and how.

This year the symposium has flagged legacy as its theme. “Legacy” is about what’s left over from the past and what to do with it. This is more neutral concept, with more valency, than “heritage”, and instantly raises questions of value – personal, cultural, social, monetary, residing in the object, in what it represents, in how we see an artifact, in what it says to us. Questions of why we should be bothered about old things.

The symposia promote connoisseurship as a means of dealing with automotive heritage or legacy. This has really got me thinking. As an archaeologist of the ancient Greek world I was trained as a connoisseur – over nearly ten years becoming intimately familiar with artworks made in Corinth between about 720 and 600 BC, through museum-based research, hands-on work in ceramics, and through technical studies.

I was bothered by how connoisseurship, which developed out of the world of the eighteenth-century antiquary, had come to get a bad name, had come to be associated with esoteric high-cultural taste and interest, not open to the majority of people but quite monopolized by experts. Bernard Berenson, for example, revolutionized the art history of Renaissance painting by his connoisseurship, but became too closely connected with collectors who knew that his opinion of a painting could enormously increase (or decrease), its value on the market. And he took a 5% cut of any advised sale or purchase.

I dealt with connoisseurship of Greek art in my book “Classical Archaeology of Greece” [Link] – showing how we truly need deep knowledge of things like artworks. We need experts in art, material culture, and design history who can act as honest brokers, offering judgement of value (of all kinds) rooted in substantiated expertise. This is connoisseurship:

  • deep knowledge of things
  • rooted in close attention to making, design, style
  • bringing together technical knowledge, social and cultural context, interpretation and analysis of style and form
  • involving close reading of the artifact as a document informing us of its makers, consumers, of its times.

So I am offering a couple of talks to explore what this might mean for the car collector.

The first is a one-hour version of my class and forthcoming book about design – I talk through a collection of items, showing how things are always more than objects.

The second is an argument that we’re all archaeologists – working on what remains.

Here are some points for the car collector:

  • the car is always an assemblage – not just an object, but a bundle of stories, paperwork, contexts, as well as parts
  • think less of the dates of cars and more of archaeological time — duration, encounter, presence, care
  • a living past requires triage, intervention, engagement, mobilization – animation
  • collecting the past is about choices made for the future
  • rise to the challenge of the archive — it’s who we are and it’s always “we”

The world of the car collector, as with the world of the automobile, is no longer just about cars – because the automobile is a mode of modern experience, a way of thinking about things, it’s a lens through which to view our world – and in sharp focus.



Egyptian New Kingdom sculpture and a gravity/vacuum fuel pump for a pre-war Bentley – both appearing in my talk “Ten Things – how and why the legacies of the past matter so much”

Here are the slides for my talk “We’re all archaeologists now – how and why every car collector should embrace their inner archaeological self”

“We’re all archaeologists” – Revs Symposium 2015 from Slideshare

And here are Sara Heppner-Waldston’s superb graphic captures of what I have to say:



connoisseurship of the car

I am back from an extraordinary symposium at Miles Collier’s Revs Institute in Florida, exploring the world of collectable cars at this end of an era. The engine note, the feedback through steering wheel from rubber tyre grip, the scent of warm motor oil, the conversation by the gas station on the road trip, will be history sooner than we anticipate.

This hobby, in this company of sixty of the most thoughtful of connoisseurs, is becoming automotive heritage – automotive archaeology. The future of the car will be the greatest case yet of the transformation into heritage of an aspect of our contemporary past.

Just what is a car? Artifactual form cannot contain this manifold of human experience, of modernity, of identity and aspiration, of global concern, of carbon politics. The car stands witness to the reality of Marcel Mauss’s total social fact.

The car is a new kind of challenge to the museum and the archive. Its essence is surely to work, to operate, to be driven, but that cannot hold forever. Might we not preserve what may be lost – a key human experience of modernity? And how? How to run the past? Reenactment? Document? Let it go?



The remarkable cars of Briggs Cunningham and a Harry Miller racer with Dario Franchitti and Doug Nye – the great racing driver and one of the most engaging of storytellers

Miles Collier and I shared a conversation with symposium guests around the humble and the sublime, the shape of history and the most personal of connections with the automobile


With Dario Franchitti and car collector/driver/racer Nick Mason