Object DomicileThis object occupies a place in the Strong Room, Immelman Basement, Special Collection: Sammy Marks Papers: BC770_H4. It exists as an item from the personal estate of Sammy Marks.
Object OriginUnknown August 1907
The object was made to supply the high demand for leather products.
The object has the look and feel of an old antique furniture piece. Its monochromatic colour is broken only by the imperfections inflicted by time. The scratches, marks, stains, wrinkles, indentations and a whole lot of effects on the leather surface create a strong sense of tactility. They seem to speak of a lifetime of great adventure; a time of exploration.
The Sammy Marks Leather Cartridge Case
This object occupies a place in the Kaplan Centre Storeroom, where it’s kept in the Strong Room, Immelman Basement, Special Collections of the University of Cape Town. It forms part of the Sammy Marks Papers: BC770_H4 archive.
The object arrived here as part of the Sammy Marks collection, which was previously stored in the Sammy Marks House, Zwartkoppies. The process of how the object got here is part of an extensive lobbying and prospecting that involved the National Museum and the Marks family, over the estate of the late Marks. Having been housed in Zwartkoppies, Pretoria, where Sammy Marks’ estate was kept, between the 1890s and some time in 1983, it was part of the collection that was relocated to the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town (Mendelsohn, 1991:255).
In the Sammy Marks Papers(BC770_H4) archives, held in the Special Collections of the University, there is no direct or indirect mention of this object. Its existence in the archives points to its own individual participation in history, as a carrier of stories connected to the personal and the societal context of its original owner. The appeal of it, as Petridis suggests, is “ the particular contexts and historical individuals related to an object’s creation, use, and circulation” (Perrill, 2017:2). The biographies of objects are complex things to understand. MacGregor (2010: xxiii), referring to the process of analysing an object’s biography, states that “Now that we know its place of origin, it is impossible not to wonder what it may have witnessed, and not to accompany it, in imagination, on its journey…” In the case of the cartridge case the place of origin is not as clear as the original owner and his social and political status. But it can be argued that the use of imagination in compiling the object’s biography is a necessary. When in used in conjunction with some of the information from the Sammy Marks Papers archives this imagination provides sheds some light into the previous life of this object. One bit of information is that Marks had interests in a leather tanning company, which he ran with his business partners. Further knowledge which seems to bring some curious question as why would he have owned a cartridge case appears in Mendelsohn (1991: 255), who states that Marks “ never carried a gun”. From a combination of this information, one could imagine that perhaps the cartridge case was created as a kind of souvenir or prototype by some craftsmen or woman to demonstrate Marks ownership of interests in the leather tanning business. But since the tin-made cartridge compartments in the case do indicate possible extensive contact with actual bullets at some point, one is also able to suppose that the case must have been used by someone who actually owned a gun and carried bullets in the thing. This could have been at a later stage when a family associate or even one his children had access to it and used it on hunting occasions, once Marks had passed on or in old age. This possibility was opened up by most of Marks possible belongings having been left in estate for his family, later acquired as part of the National museum in Pretoria.
Other than these narratives, the biographical information includes the object’s reference to several personal traditions which the owner practiced, but also to a network of practices that speak of a more worldly involvement. The first of these is as a remnant of the thriving leather craft industry which was fuelled by the Dutch and British colonies’ high demand for leather crafted horse-riding equipment such as saddles, and demand driven by the Boer wars and the two world wars for the supply of leather boots (Dti, 2016: 97). The leather material also extends the association of the object to the industry of animal hunting. This is where the social status of the owner, at the time of ownership, may be reconstructed through one of his possible personal pursuits, as derived from the contexts of the animal hunting in the 19th century. As the man who is known to have owned the object, Sammuel Marks, had interests in commercial and leisure activities, and had as “…his greatest social coup: a shooting party on August 1907…” (Mendelsohn, 1991:150).
The history of animal hunting itself is a complex one, and it appears throughout history that the tradition has existed for different reasons in different contexts. As Mackenzie (2017: 13) declares that “the great hunters of the ancient world offered protection to their subjects’ life and limb and to their crops by destroying wild predators.” This seems to suggest a totally decisive set of values operating in the killing of animals, totally different from what is described as the objective of 19th century hunters who “…justified their activities not only by the pleasure derived but also by the contribution they were making to natural history.” (Beinart and Coates, 1995: 26). This contribution is in some instances described by Beinart and Coates (2015:26) as the hunters having “…devoted an increasing amount of their time to natural history.” There may be a way being promoted here, of how hunting must be understood and accepted as a sort of culturally significant occupation. As Mackenzie (2017: 16) further elaborates “…the nineteenth-century hunting cult had an extraordinary range of cultural manifestations.” Mackenzie sees further affinities between the traditions of hunting and cultural development. He sees this in the domestic architecture and interior décor of homes where the animal appears as a motif of decoration, through paintings and other objects. His most culturally illuminating assertion is that “In the development of both the study and display areas of the natural history museums the scientists and museum curators were dependent upon imperial hunters.” (2017: 15).
Entry into the Archives
This suggests an extended connection in which the object has material ancestry that always occupied an imagined place in a museum, and by extension in the archives. It is a point that could be seen to “…emphasize the point of entry of an object into an archival context.” (Perrill, 2017: 2). The reference to the ‘point of entry’ is key in asking questions generally of what gains any object an entry into the archives. In the case of this Leather Cartridge Case, it can be argued that provenance was important in lending this object into the archives. The historical importance of the figure who owned this object carries significance emanating from his place in history. That significance becomes more important than the actual meaning of the material object and its story, because it could be argued that its story is as an object that possibly was at some point mass produced and without any individual appeal to the archives. But as Perrill (2017: 2) argues “…provenance occludes the backstory of the archived item before it was admitted into a collection.” There is an argument that qualifies the point that the object doesn’t need to have a solid, monolithic story to warrant a place in the archive. In fact, in this argument the object is not defined by its significance as an object, but by its existence as “…the end result of long-term processes of stabilization, in which the actual material object is both a result and yet a key co-producer of its own generation.” (Benzecry, 2015:2). This argument succeeds in affirming the validity of this object as an archival one because, once again, it recognizes that through it being formerly in the ownership of a historical figure from the day of its creation, the object has through material time been involved in practices and activities that give rise to a production of other narratives. But even in its success, this argument still isn’t enough to satisfy the pointed question of how this Leather Cartridge Case is in the archives. That answer possibly lies with looking at objects as a collective. As revealed by Mendelsohn, the object was acquired as a part of the Sammy Marks’ archives by the National museum from his personal estate (1991:255). With that view of the object – as gaining entry into the archives by association to a collection – there comes the acceptance that in encountering this individual object, we are encountering a group of reproductions of histories. And what this means is that in the Sammy Marks estate, which would later constitute thte Sammy Marks Archives, there are collections of different types of objects related to business, family and personal activities. These activities represent a certain part of the family history, but in the process of being transferred to the situation of the archives they all acquired extra meaning in history. So even among themselves, the objects in that archive lend their histories to each other in that they can mostly be understood from a shared history.
Privilege among objects
Sammy Marks was a Lithuanian-born South African industrialist, merchant and politically-connected figure. “Sammy Marks was also a close friend and admirer of Paul Kruger and a popular figure within the Transvaal business” (SAHO, 2011:13). This short introduction to Sammy Marks helps in understanding his status and therefore, connection to national history. This is important in discussing his historical influence on the decision to include his personal possessions into archives, which the following section will do with reference to his cartridge case.
The object in its current material state makes little or no reference to its object parent, whose precise identity is unclear, except to state that the earlier reference to Sammy Marks’ involvement in leather tanning and hunting expeditions of antelopes point to possibility of it being a buck. The absence of recognizable connection of the material to its object parent is a fact that is a documentation of the multiple processes and interests it has gone through to reach this state. Those processes all represent stories of vested interests in economic, leisurely and political aspirations. From animal hunting, slaughtering, skinning, tanning, softening, milling and staking to finishing, embossing and buffing (Dti, 2016: 97). But the accumulation of those process, especially the tradition of leather tanning – which is a process by which chemical treatment of raw animal hide or skin is converted into leather (Tikkanen, 2018) – become a metaphor for the privilege afforded archived objects. The practice of an animal killed only to have its hide turned into an object valued more than the animal life itself, can be looked at as a parallel that sees this present object evolving from a personal item to an essentially national one, afforded a place in the Strong Room of the Special Collections of an academic institution. In the reading room of the Jagger Library of the University of Cape Town, where one goes to seek for permission to research or look at the objects in the Special Collections, one is given protective gloves with which to handle the object. It is part of the strict requirements of handling this object, and others of its ilk. Those gloves are a representation of the bureaucratic shield afforded the object. This bureaucracy serves to mark the collection as a privileged resource, only a few people ever get to see or touch. This raises questions of access to history and its narratives, and the story-making resources. Whose story gets written into history, how and by whom? These are some of the burning questions that come with recognition that the archives are still driven by colonially erected hierarchies.
The Sammy Marks Leather Cartridge can be a frustratingly illusive object to study for a researcher, due to its almost silent presence in history. Yet it is this very quality that makes it a compelling subject of inquiry. But this may only be true when one has both the allowance and the awareness that, like Kriel (2018:2) puts it, there is “…inevitability of a multi-perspectival approach…” to questions of object biography studies. Among these ways of seeing such an object, is fully accepting that one can’t separate it from the person. Maybe one shouldn’t try.
Cape Town – Kimberley – Johannesburg (Estimated). Object narratives unknown in these alternative routes.