Taking a Step Back in Order to Make a Giant Leap for Material Culture

Last week I took a shot at creating a class lesson plan utilizing material culture (MC). I only researched the specific topic for about a week, but patience isn’t a virtue of mine, so I wanted to do something with what I found. It was a productive exercise, but I just felt like something was missing. I felt like I wasn’t making all the connections I needed to. I couldn’t see the activity happening successfully in a classroom. So this week I took a step back to research the topic more. The goal was to find more literature on using MC, but not specifically in the history classroom. With the help of the class I identified new phrases to research and different ways of looking at finding information. I don’t know why I didn’t do this before, but I queried periodicals such as The History Teacher and looked into MC from the perspective of museum studies. What I found enriched my understanding of MC and gave me more ideas about my evolving lesson plan.

But before I talk about my findings, step back because I’m about to go meta. While I was researching, it dawned on me that I’m doing exactly what we’ve echoed in virtually every session of our class: I created a lesson plan with almost no pressure on the outcome, I’m now reflecting and improving it, and I will revise the plan later. This is the principle of practicing within a low-pressure environment. What’s more is that I’m actually thinking about the design of what I’m doing. This is very exciting to participate in what we discuss. I found myself motivated to revise the lesson plan, which testifies to the effectiveness of the learning principle. But I became even more motivated seeing the principle in action. This was something I felt I had to share because it made me believe even more in what we discuss in class. I’m invested now more than ever.

Back to what I found. One of the first concepts that stood out to me was the treatment of museums as a detached space from the real world. Janet Marstine, Program Director of Art Museum and Gallery Studies at the University of Leicester, stated in her article, What a Mess!, that student exhibitions can “complicate and sometimes even contradict institutional narratives.” She continues, “And as we increasingly reject the notion of the university museum as a storehouse and reconceptualize it as a space of encounter, a site that fosters learning communities, it follows that visitors should experience a multiplicity of voices in university exhibitions, including those of students” (p. 2). Suzannah Lipscomb, Research Curator at Historic Royal Palaces in England, conveyed this same concept in her piece, Historic Authenticity and Interpretive Strategy at Hampton Court Palace. She discussed the “liminality” of a museum in that it is a place where conventional rules governing social behavior are suspended, and visitors can step outside themselves and essentially take on a different identity.

This concept tells me that integrating MC in the classroom cannot be something that is sprung haphazardly on a class. The class must be developed into a safe space in which students feel they can leave their “real world” identity at the door and take on the identify of an interested student. This means investing in creating dialogue and establishing the classroom environment early. But I believe this would pay dividends later.

This brings up another point regarding an investment in the class. I think MC should follow a scaffolding type of learning. But this would not be individualized. What I mean is the class should practice analyzing MC on relatively simple objects first. For example, Assistant Professor in History at Cleveland State University Thomas L. Hartshorne discussed using MC in his class in An Approach to Teaching Popular Culture Materials in History Courses. He discussed how he moved from relatively simple questions about a familiar series of cartoons to more complicated ones in order to prepare students for the rigorous analysis MC would entail. Another example of scaffolding this learning came from Omeka in the classroom: The challenges of teaching material culture in a digital world by Allison C. Marsh, Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina. She discussed having students bring objects from their lives to class in order to analyze them. She required the students to use the same objects the entire semester.

Although I like the idea of using familiar cartoons, I like Marsh’s more. I think using objects from one’s life is less intimidating and more inviting.  Furthermore, much of the research this week talked about linking the objects to the individuals through stories in order to better engage in learning. I believe practicing analyzing MC with one’s own objects would be an easy first step into learning how to tell stories about objects and link them to other objects.

Finally, the following definition of MC struck me in his book struck me: “Material culture study is, therefore, the study through artifacts and other pertinent historical evidence) of belief systems—the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions—of a particular community or society, usually across time. As a study, it is based upon the obvious premise that the existence of a man-made object is concrete evidence of the presence of a human mind operating at the time of fabrication. The common assumption underlying material culture research is that objects made or modified by humans, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, reflect the belief patterns of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and, by extension, the belief patterns of the larger society of which they are a part” (p. 3). This can be found in Material Culture Studies in America by Thomas Schlereth, Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Notre Dame.

This definition, along with reading about museum exhibits that host multiple artifacts, made me think about including more than one object in an analysis session. I think that isolating one object would result in less rich inquiry. Based on Schlereth’s definition, I believe that MC constitutes a web of complex relationships that would be better investigated through multiple objects than through one.

This week’s investigation of MC was bittersweet. I discovered different perspectives of MC, and I learned that “object based learning” is synonymous with teaching with MC. This was awesome. Unfortunately, however, I had to stop searching so that I could synthesize what I did find. There was too much to cover. But I think this week’s search was helpful because it is helping me understand that using MC is an endeavor that needs a large investment; it is not an arbitrary filler. So, next week I would like make a small step in ultimately revising the lesson plan by looking at two books – History from Things: Essays on Material Culture and American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture. My hope is that after this broader look at MC, I can pull more from the analysis of it by other scholars. We’ll have to wait and see.

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2 Responses to Taking a Step Back in Order to Make a Giant Leap for Material Culture

  1. This is really interesting –some of the stuff I was reading this week talked about how much of academia as we know it is based off of a culture where literacy and text-based knowledge are privileged, and how that emphasis on the text and the written word structures what we think of as legitimate knowledge. The articles I read were focused on how digital technology might be changing that model, but it seems like material culture is making a different sort of intervention into how we think about knowledge and authority. Cool.

    Also, I went last week to the Harry Ransom Center for another class, and we got to talk with the woman in charge of the “costumes and personal effects” collection. She had some really interesting things to say about how archives have traditionally looked at material culture. I forget her name but I could look it up if you’re interested in trying to talk to her.

  2. prof2144 says:

    Do you know William Turkel’s work. He’s giving a talk (streaming) this afternoon on “The Hands On Imperative.”


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