Objects, People, and Peace

Caroline O’Connell

Our world and our lived experiences are shaped by objects. We rely upon, construct, sort, alter, cherish, fight over, and share them. We imbue objects with meaning, consciously and unconsciously, and thus they reveal much about the individuals and communities who made and use them.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall, Washington, DC, 1987. At the time, it featured 1,920 panels; today it comprises around fifty thousand.

Our world and our lived experiences are shaped by objects. We rely upon, construct, sort, alter, cherish, fight over, and share them. We imbue objects with meaning, consciously and unconsciously, and thus they reveal much about the individuals and communities who made and use them. In considering any human-made or human-altered thing, we see not only the physical object but also the culture that created it. Objects are not neutral, just as people are not without perspectives. They are, rather, proxies for belief systems and their legacies.[1] Objects bind us to one another. As curator and scholar Glenn Adamson writes, “Every object represents a potential social connection. By better understanding the tangible things in our lives, we better understand our fellow humans.”[2] The study of objects, often referred to as material culture, is an inquiry into things made in the past but also an examination of how they function in the present, and it may be a method by which we can conceptualize a better future. Here I will consider a few design projects, some featured elsewhere in this book, and make a short case for the potency of objects and for the study of materiality in service of supporting, waging, and sustaining peace.

Form, Expectations, and Dialogue

Size, shape, color, and content—the formal qualities of things—are entry points for observation. These physical characteristics help us analyze and attempt to understand them.[3] But when there is a gulf between the assumptions we have made based on initial impressions and the physical traits of an object, our comprehension is upended, and questions arise. This is the case with Maps (Bullet Rug Series, image of hands weaving bullets, at right) by the art collective DETEXT, begun in 2013, in which rug-sized textiles incorporate bullet casings threaded onto the weft yarns and woven into the fabric. These shimmering pieces belie our common associations with domestic textiles, forcing us to reconcile evocations of comfort, warmth, and decoration with the sinister relics of war. Each casing bears a manufacturer’s code and country of origin, a reminder of the geographical breadth of the international arms trade. Woven together en masse, the casings suggest uneasy links between consumerism, weaponry, and geopolitical power, creating space for awareness and ongoing dialogue, critical components of peaceful endeavors.

Sensory Engagement and Empathy

All objects connote, but those that invoke senses beyond the visual can elicit distinct affective responses. Food, for example, is experienced at the intersection of multiple senses and has a privileged status in personal and public consciousness; it is at once quotidian and extraordinary. The act of nourishing, from growing and obtaining food to preparing and eventually consuming it, extends from deeply ingrained individual and familial practices to local, regional, and broader cultural customs. Thus, the proverbial act of “breaking bread together” offers opportunities for mutual experiences, some of which may be rooted in nostalgia and ease and others which may be thrilling and new.

This premise was at the forefront in Conflict Kitchen (image of four facades, at right), a takeout restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Between 2010 and 2017, Conflict Kitchen had seven iterations, each focused on a different nation that was then in conflict with the United States. Complete with themed menus, aesthetics, and attendant programming, the project used the food of each nation as both a material and a process through which to build empathy. By creating a safe, accessible space for dialogue, learning, and shared sensory engagement, Conflict Kitchen moved beyond reductive narratives of conflict and division and into the realms of curiosity, education, and culture. This is a crucial step in establishing peace.

Process as Example

The physical act of making is at the heart of material thinking. The processes by which people create are critical to understanding the impact of objects. In the realm of textiles, where method keenly delineates form and type, process helps elucidate the profoundly symbolic relationship that textiles have with the human body. As artist and textile historian Karen Nickell explains, “Cloth relates to humanity in its mortality and transience—both cloth and our body can be cut, [be] stitched, age, decay.”[4] Robust textile traditions are braided into cultures across the globe and they have been incorporated into healing and reconciliation work in numerous contexts.[5] Patchwork quilting, for example, lends itself to communal making, since the form is modular; various makers can contribute individual portions, and aesthetic variation across the patchwork squares is not uncommon. The technique has long been connected with collective and often women-powered groups such as quilting circles, bees, and associations.

In Northern Ireland, artist- and community-led initiatives during the decades-long period of sectarian violence known as The Troubles included collaborative textile making in service of collective mourning, remembrance, and expression.[6] In 1970, against this volatile backdrop, the peacebuilding group Women Together was established to unite women across the religious spectrum and offer a safe space for dialogue and coordinated initiatives in opposition to the violence perpetrated both by the government and by paramilitary groups. The three patchwork quilts Women Together created in the 1990s, two of which are pictured here, are symbolic of the organization’s broader ambitions and are tangible examples of its achievements. In a process led by Pat Campbell, a longtime member, the quilts were composed of squares sent in by more than fifty individuals and organizations. Once the quilts were completed, Women Together further activated these textiles by traveling with them and displaying them at peace walks and conferences.[7] The quilts, like the work of Women Together, were ambitious and volunteer driven. They marshaled the form, texture, and process of the patchwork tradition in service of a united and defiant stance for peace.

Memories and Futures

The physical presence of an object may be less powerful than the ways in which that thing manifests in public consciousness. Past and present are often intertwined in objects, codified in items ranging from heirlooms to elements of urban infrastructure. In addition to exploring the formal properties and processes that created an object, we must also investigate the cultural, economic, and social stories of its makers and those for whom such things were made. This can also tell us a great deal about those for whom an object is not intended—and even about those whose exclusion is embodied in an object’s form.

Seeking to create an inclusive and relevant dialogue about public monuments, the organizers of Paper Monuments (image of three boys participating in a project, at right), a public art project begun in 2017, solicited the opinions of New Orleans residents. Organized amid the furor surrounding the removal of Confederate statues in the city, the project mobilized a collective brainstorming effort that resulted in hugely varied public proposals. By encouraging those who would be living and interacting with the monuments to share their thoughts, the project democratized the historically elite decision-making process around public commemoration to ensure it was aligned with the values of everyday stakeholders.

As the project’s title wryly suggests, paper is a material counterpoint to the heavy stone and metal used to build most monuments, but the immaterial aspects of the proposals carry equal and possibly more weight. People like things, but ideas are powerful, though fragile. We must acknowledge both to understand how objects impact the present and might support a more equitable future.

Caroline O’Connell

Caroline O’Connell’s work explores the intersections between design and material culture. She is Curatorial Assistant at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum where she contributed to the Designing Peace exhibition and publication.

Close-up photograph of a pair of hands weaving golden bullets into a loom stretched with twine.

Photographs of four street food stands covered in vibrant colors and patterns, each serving a different type of cuisine.

A quilt with a navy background and 16 patches containing various imagery. Along the border clockwise are the words “Equality,” “Solidarity,” “Peace,” and “Justice” in white.

Women Together’s Northern Ireland Peace Quilt, 1994. Documented in the Conflict Textiles digital archive, Ulster University, Northern Ireland. Photo Colin Peck © Conflict Textiles.

A quilt with a navy background and 21 patches containing various imagery. Along the border clockwise are the words “Understand,” “Respect,” “Compromise,” and “Listen” in white.

Northern Ireland Reconciliation Quilt, 1995. Documented in the Conflict Textiles digital archive, Ulster University, Northern Ireland. Photo Colin Peck © Conflict Textiles.

Three dark-skinned teens stand on a palm tree-lined sidewalk next to a wall plastered in black and yellow posters while one teen writes on a clipboard.


[1] Here I am indebted to foundational work of Jules David Prown, whose articulation of material culture methodology serves as a building block for this analysis. See Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 1–19, and “In Pursuit of Culture: The Formal Language of Objects,” American Art 9, no. 2 (1994), 2–3.

[2] Glenn Adamson, Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 8.

[3] Formal analysis is a starting point for studying an object but it must be done carefully. Each observer’s personal and cultural biases impact how they may describe the physicality of an object.

[4] Karen Nickell, “Troubles Textiles: Textile Responses to the Conflict in Northern Ireland,” Cloth and Culture 13, no. 3 (2015), 236.

[5] See Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), and Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art and Textile Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[6] The Troubles were marked by extreme violence and a culture of silence that made acknowledgment and healing very difficult. Women Together was founded by Ruth Agnew, a Protestant, and Monica Patterson, a Catholic. The group worked to support their communities, promote dialogue across the religious spectrum, and give voice to the families and victims of sectarian violence.

[7] Women Together had initially planned to make only one quilt, but they received so many squares that they decided to make three. See Karen Nickell, “Embroidery in the Expanded Field: Textile Narratives in Irish Art Post-1968” (PhD thesis, University of Ulster, 2014), 194.