Thoughts Evoked by Contrasting Two Works on Material Culture

This week I took a closer look at the actual practice of analyzing material culture (MC). I did this in order to enrich my eventual lesson/class plan that will integrate MC to better teach history. I focused on two books this week: History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, edited by Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery, and American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture, edited by Jules David Prown and Kenneth Haltman.

Both books were collections of essays that analyzed certain objects. On the one hand, the essays in History from Things are based on papers presented at the “History from Things: The Use of Objects in Understanding the Past” conference held at the Smithsonian Institution in April 1989. The contributors represented many fields of study including history of technology, cultural geography, folklore, and anthropology. On the other hand, the essays in American Artifacts are from graduate students at Yale University that took Prown’s material culture class. The pieces are the polished papers written for the class. The books elicited a number of thoughts.

First, the books provided an interesting, unplanned contrast. Whereas in History from Things, theoretical concepts were discussed and the framework and perspective of the analyses varied, in American Artifacts all pieces followed the analytical sequence outlined in Prown’s “Mind in Matter” article (this will be part of my investigation for next week) and were practical discussions of the objects. But for now, a boiled down version of Prown’s sequence is as follows (p. 2-7):

  • Describe the object itself in narrative form “in order to recreate an object’s visual and physical effect in words” because “as many insights arise out of the process of writing as out of that of looking.”
  • Elucidate your intellectual and sensory responses to your chosen object in the form of deductions, drawing insight and evidence from your own previous description.
  • Elucidate your emotional response drawing on the same insight and evidence from your description.
  • Entertain hypotheses about what the object signifies or suggests about the world in which it circulated. “Out of what matrix of contested meanings – tensions, ambiguities, and contradiction – is its broadest meaning generated?”
  • Think creatively about what research would be necessary to test your interpretive hypothesis…For now, simply explain the direction (or directions) in which you find yourself headed, the sort of research you anticipate undertaking, and the research problems the endeavor poses.”
  • Compose an interpretive analysis

As one could have guessed from the analytic sequence, American Artifacts provided an incredible roadmap and detailed examples to follow when engaging objects. But I don’t think objects should be the primary focus since teaching history is the goal. This may not be clear. What I mean is the objects should be a starting point, or at least a supplement. Objects should engage and immerse students so that they learn how to investigate while also absorbing the historical context that surrounds the objects. I would like to expose students to MC in order to show them that objects can augment historical analysis. I don’t want to only teach them about MC.

The books also made me reflect on how I will utilize MC in the classroom. I won’t be able to transpose a guide to analyzing MC onto a lesson plan – that is a good thing. I am going to have to tinker with what I collect in order to integrate this practice to better teach history, which is the ultimate goal. I also realized that in guiding students through an analysis of an object, I need not have all the answers to the questions posed. The idea is to create questions that need to be answered. That is how to engage students – keep them coming back for more.

The comparison of these books also helped me realized that the best way to learn how to analyze MC is to analyze MC. As I read History from Things and American Artifacts, I was interested in what the contributors said about the objects and their methods for conducting analysis. However, at times the essays became monotonous because for each object much of the same message was conveyed. In History from Things, the messages included: we can learn much from objects, objects are a supplement to history, there are many perspectives and disciplines that can be adopted in approaching MC analysis, objects can be analyzed as objects themselves or as signs/markers that are embedded with the beliefs and values of a culture. After a few weeks of researching MC and its utilization in the classroom, these messages become dull quickly. I found myself trying to reengage with the text because I knew the authors were providing great information, but to put it into a context with which we are familiar, the book turned into an authority telling me about something. It was not engaging. Moreover, in American Artifacts, although the template was sound and the analysis was intriguing, I didn’t get much more from reading each new essay. So I thought to myself, “what better way to learn about the intricacies of analyzing MC than analyzing MC?!”

The most logical progression from this conclusion is that I revise my initial Sandow’s Spring Grip Dumbbell Analysis for next week, but I don’t want to try my hand at it again just yet. Last week I felt that there was still more to find, and with a few more weeks dedicated to “lit review” type of research before we start “doing,” I think I want to pick up where I left off. I may not find anything new, or I may find a wealth of information that enriches my understanding. Either way, I don’t want to feel that I’ve left stones unturned. On to the next week.

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