Material Culture: Where it is and Where to Next?

This week my task was to research the use of material culture in the history classroom. Before I began investigating this topic, I wasn’t sure how much information I would unearth. I have not experienced much use of objects and images in doing history, save for a class at The University of Texas taught by Dr. Joan Neuberger called Visual Evidence in History. In the class we explored different perspectives in integrating visual sources in historical research and thinking. My experience with the class led me to believe few scholars or instructors in history were utilizing anything other than textual sources. In general this may be the case. But my initial probe into this subject was so fruitful that it may me rethink this belief. The most difficult part about my task this week was setting limitations on what I should pursue versus what I should set aside as interesting, but not pertinent.

Generally, my findings support the assertions that we can glean much from material culture, that material culture provides an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, and that material culture should play more of a role in teaching. These are not new ideas. Interestingly, there is a large presence of guidelines and lesson plans for instructors. The material culture covered in the lesson plans include travel narratives, buildings, maps, and images, among other objects. A few of my findings seem particularly useful and impressive. The World History Sources page, which is part of the George Madison University Roy Rosenweig Center for History and New Media, provides a number resources on utilizing different types of material culture in the classroom. For example, a scholar familiar to our class, T. Mills Kelly, provides an overview of census data, including why it is significant. He then analyzes a sample of census data himself, and talks about how he teaches students to analyze it. This same template is used on a number of other types of material culture including paintings, inquisition documents, commission records, etc.

Another particularly instructive resource I found was Laura Leibman’s blog. Leibman is a professor of English and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, OR, and her blog is called History and Things: Using Material Culture in the Jewish Studies Classroom. She provides sample syllabi, sample lesson plans (I like this one in particular), and other resources instructors can mine. She seems to espouse many of the principles we have learned in this class including creating a semiotic domain and low risk practice.

Finally, the teachinghistoryorg channel on YouTube really resonated with me. There were a few videos in which a teacher used visual sources with elementary school students. Seeing the inquisitiveness and thinking ability of children so young served as a testament to the power of using material culture in the classroom. If these children can offer insightful thoughts from examining a picture, I think the opportunities abound for using all kinds of objects to teach critical thinking as well as how to do history. Seeing it – “it” as in the enthusiasm of the children and their brains working to grasp concepts – was invigorating; especially when the grind of grad school is taking its toll.

I learned a lot from this first dive into the subject of material culture in the classroom. First, using material culture as a tool is an interdisciplinary endeavor that is shared by those in art education, archaeology, and museum studies, among others. This may be common knowledge to some, but to actually see it discussed in different disciplines told me that there are many opportunities to learn from different perspectives. Second, it seems that most of the information is found through more informal channels such as blogs and web resources versus books and academic journals. It’s interesting that there seems to be a correlation with those that use material culture and their use of the internet. Perhaps this is due to being up to date on what is new and what leaders in the field are doing. I have a feeling that this is significant, but I can’t put my finger on why. Individuals are aware of the benefits of utilizing material culture in the classroom. Many have also shared guidelines or even class assignments on how to specifically implement the material culture strategy. Is the next step to find better ways to disseminate the information? Or is it to conduct studies on the learning that occurs with material culture so that it can be used to show others it is beneficial?

These questions lead me to believe that I may be better served researching a different area. Or, on second thought, perhaps I should go deeper in trying to find ways to demonstrate how the lesson plans and syllabi that utilize material culture support the learning principles some of our authors have offered. This is where I will conclude, and hope I can pick up from this point next week.

Selected Findings:


Lesson Plans: 

Guidelines for Instructors:

Journal articles discussing Material Culture:

Teaching Center:

Personal Experience Using Material Culture:

Why Material Culture:

More General Resources for Instructors: 



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2 Responses to Material Culture: Where it is and Where to Next?

  1. prof2144 says:

    impressive, Michelle. Your post got me to thinking about a lot of areas that I simply haven’t explored for teaching the history survey. thx

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