Objects as Storytellers: 9 Decorative Arts Podcasts
by Taryn Clary
While museums remain largely closed across the country, scholarship and discussion about decorative arts continue virtually—in this case in the form of podcasts, 30- to 60-minute audio programs that serve equally as education and diversion. The following nine podcasts, hosted by a range of art world professionals and enthusiasts alike, delve into topics of material culture, history, design, museums, and more, satisfying our craving for object-based content this summer. These offerings demonstrate that even though we cannot hold or see them in person just yet, objects still have the power to tell stories.
The Magazine Antiques has been a leading publication on fine and decorative arts over the last one hundred years, so it is no wonder that the periodical has produced one of the leading art podcasts as well. Each episode of this podcast focuses on an individual object, from a 2,500-year-old canopic jar from ancient Egypt to a 20th-century Tiffany favrile glass pig. Through interviews with curators and dealers, host Benjamin Miller ventures in depth into the creation, provenance, and historical context of these pieces and explains why they matter.
Hosted by Architectural Digest’s decorative arts editor Mitchell Owens, this podcasts invites us to listen in on lively conversations between some of the most successful architects, designers, and decorators working in the industry today. One highlight of the newest season, launched in April 2020, is a frank discussion on the experience of women establishing themselves in male-dominated design fields. Learn about major moments in design history, what styles and tastes are on their way, and perhaps pick up a few interior design concepts to liven up your quarantine décor.
The inner workings of museums can often feel opaque to a visitor. This podcast, hosted by Philbrook Museum of Art Communications Manager Jeff Martin, attempts to pull back the curtain on museums through interviews with professionals steeped in insider knowledge. While some episodes unveil the strategic decisions involved in the development of an exhibition or the acquisition of a specific work of art, others illuminate larger institutional trends and push the conversation forward on how museums can continue to evolve into more dynamic and inclusive institutions.
This podcast considers all the thought and effort that lies beneath the visible surface of an object, pointing out how quotidian things we take for granted have been consciously crafted. A recent and particularly topical episode addresses the production history of toilet paper and how it came to be the go-to product during a crisis. For a more refined selection of episodes, browse the category “Objects.”
Stuff You Missed in History Class
Learning never stops, particularly when listening to these entertaining chats on lesser-known facts that may have been missing from your history syllabus. Though the podcast is not object-focused, material culture and archaeology regularly play a role in providing context and connecting the dots.
The Bowery Boys: New York City History
Missing the bustling streets of New York City? Binge on over 300 episodes of this podcast dedicated to New York City history as told by devoted New Yorkers. Greg Young and Tom Meyers present a closer look at familiar street corners, formative figures, grand landmarks, and even iconic foods that have defined the city’s character over time.
Lost at the Smithsonian with Aasif Mandvi
Comedian Aasif Mandvi brings a fresh perspective and humor to the museum world with his exploration of ten iconic objects within the collection of the National Museum of American History. Speaking with curators and fellow actors, Mandvi uncovers how pieces of costume and set design like Archie Bunker’s living room chair and Dorothy’s ruby slippers became highly recognizable symbols of American pop culture. Sharing insight on what these pieces of entertainment history mean to him personally, Mandvi invites you to take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about your favorite classics.
Dressed: The History of Fashion
Like the decorative arts, fashion is an important mode of expression with meaning beyond just aesthetics. Co-hosts and fashion historians April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary spend each episode of their podcast thoughtfully analyzing prevailing styles from a variety of time periods and cultures, supplemented by interviews with costume designers, fashion photographers, and models. Recent episodes respond to current events and their influence on the fashion industry, with one dedicated to the evolution of the nurse uniform and another dedicated to protest attire and protective equipment.
Take your mind on a quick trip to London with this podcast on one of the largest collections in the world, that of the British Museum. Comedian host Iszi Lawrence speaks with specialists from all departments of the museum to examine snippets of the encyclopedic history their objects represent. Particularly intriguing episodes put a spotlight on conservation science and the vigilant work of the pest manager protecting the collection from moths during lockdown.
To find these podcasts and more on a smartphone or computer, head to your preferred listening platform (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, SoundCloud); search by title or browse among recommended series in the Arts, History, and Culture categories; select an episode; and hit play!
Do you have a favorite podcast we missed? Share what you are listening to in the comments below.
About The Decorative Arts Trust Bulletin
Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.