Historians and Material Culture

This is one of a series of AHA Today posts on subjects of importance to the history profession that were discussed at the 2015 annual meeting. The author, Sarah Jones Weicksel, is a PhD candidate in US history and a fellow at the Center for the Study for Gender and Sexuality at the University of Chicago. She is currently at work on her dissertation, entitled “The Fabric of War: Clothing, Culture and Violence in the American Civil War Era.” She received an MA from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and a BA in history from Yale University. She can be reached at sweicksel@uchicago.edu.

The 2015 AHA annual meeting, themed “History and the Other Disciplines,” brought together sessions that engaged with anthropology, material culture, archaeology, visual studies, and museum studies, among many others. This seems a fruitful moment to address a growing interest in material culture, most broadly defined as all human-made objects; the availability of resources for historians to access its study; and the influence of material culture on the way historians research and teach history.

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A few of the objects in my own teaching collection that I combine with texts and images for in-class exercises: a late 19th-century stereoscope and photograph, a circa-1920 cast iron toy stove, and reproduction pottery. These are some of the objects I use in my historical methodology course for senior U.S history majors.

Many historians who teach expect students to identify a broad range of materials as sources—from manuscripts and maps, to government records and newspapers, to photographs and archaeological artifacts. Attending panels on teaching and primary sources at the annual meeting, I found that those instructors who have worked with objects and images in their classrooms had positive experiences with students’ responses to these material artifacts. In my own courses, I have found that asking my students to engage with images and objects both expands their approach to research projects, and emboldens their ability to think more critically about the textual sources with which they are more—and perhaps too—comfortable. (For more on teaching with objects, see Abby Chandler’s article from last April’s Perspectives on History.) Despite a desire to encourage students to think more broadly about historians’ evidentiary base, experienced historians, too, are more comfortable with textual sources; in our own broader conversations at the annual meeting, we regularly invoked the language of documents, reading, and textual analysis to explain how we expected students to engage with historical evidence. Words, as historian Leora Auslander has noted, continue to be our own stock-in-trade.

Some may ask, why should I make the effort to learn about the study of material culture? Indeed, if we simply view objects as illustrations or substitutes for texts, there would seem to be little value added by engaging in this undertaking. But material artifacts are not substitutes for texts. Rather, they offer an alternative evidentiary means of approaching the past that transcends the domain of language. Material culture provides access to the past as it was experienced with all five of the senses; access to the palpable past that shaped the worldviews of historical actors. Objects, images, and texts provide different pieces to the same historical puzzle—interlocking to provide a clearer, more complete picture of history.

As Joan Cashin noted at the panel I organized, “War Material: Perspectives on the Study of the Material Culture in the United States and Europe,” a growing number of historians do see the value added by studying material culture. This ongoing development raised pressing questions during the session: If I want to teach with “things,” how do I gain access to them? And how do I design effective assignments and in-class exercises for my students? In conversations, colleagues recounted frustration with possessing insufficient knowledge about analyzing and teaching with objects and images. Similarly, they expressed a desire to work with objects in their own research, but felt they lacked the authority to fully incorporate material culture into their evidence. How do we expand and refine our research and teaching methodologies to include material culture? Few doctoral programs in history intentionally train students in material culture—indeed, my own background is the combined product of attending a material culture master’s program and working with a doctoral adviser for whom objects are central to her own intellectual project. Where can established historians starting from scratch go for the necessary support?

Many historians turn to museums for help. During our session, Sara Hume, curator at the Kent State Museum, expressed curators’ eagerness to engage with and support professors and their students; and both Sophie White and Catherine Whalen articulated some of the many insights historians stand to gain from engaging with curators who have in-depth knowledge of their collections. But while some museums—including university museums—have teaching collections designed to give students tactile experiences with material artifacts, many do not. In these instances, instructors—including myself and James Seaver—who wish to incorporate into the classroom objects that students can physically handle often find themselves acquiring their own teaching collections by digging around in attics or antique stores. How might we open up a more intentional dialogue with local and national museums to generate opportunities for our students and ourselves? Might departments consider ways to establish teaching collections of images and objects to which their faculty have access?

During the course of the annual meeting, I found a rippling aspiration to expand the sources through which we approach our research and enliven history for our students, and yet, I also sensed an undercurrent of dismay about the challenges of acquiring both the skills and the access to objects in order to do so. How can we—as advisers, instructors, departments, museums and organizations—support historians’ efforts to expand the materials with which we work and teach? To increase the resources that we have at our disposal? As interest in incorporating material and visual culture into the work of history continues to swell, we must be more intentional about providing the scaffolding for continuing education in research and teaching methodologies, access to sources, training in proper handling of objects, and forums through which to learn from one another’s insights into the material worlds of the past.

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