Different Methods of MC Analysis and a Revelation

After this week’s research I sat down to write my post and thought, “It’s funny how things seem to just fall into place sometimes.” Here’s why.

My hope this week was to wrap up the literature review aspect of using material culture (MC) in the classroom. I found less than I thought I would, but I took that as a sign that I’ve found a satisfactory amount of literature and it’s time to move to the next step of analyzing MC for myself. Great! What’s more, I found two different ways of analyzing MC, which have helped me better understand the process. Finally, I read something that opened my eyes and has made me more comfortable with leading a MC analysis.

The methods of analysis differ, but I think they both provide a satisfactory guide for analyzing MC. The first model of analysis can be found in my previous post, but I’d like to modify it since I read the article in which it was proposed; Mind in Matter, by Jules David Prown. The article provides a much better explanation, and I encourage anyone interested in MC to read it.

  • Step 1 – Description
    • Substantial Analysis
      • An account of the object as it is at that time – dimensions, color, texture, etc.
      • Ways of enhancing the description such as x-rays, etc. are allowed
  • Content Analysis
    • “Iconography in its simplest sense
    • “Reading of overt representations”
    • This includes analyzing coats of arms, inscriptions, etc.
  • Formal Analysis
    • Reproduce the visual character of the object
    • This concept is more abstract, but it is essentially conveying the essence of the object
    • Step 2 – Deduction – The analyst contemplates what it would be like to interact with the object; place yourself in the object’s world/context
      •  Sensory engagement
        • Touch, feel, and use the object
  • Intellectual engagement
    • What does the object do?
    • How does it do it?
    • This step also depends on the knowledge the receiver brings with him/her
    • If these questions cannot be deduced confidently at the moment, do not attempt to answer them yet
  • Emotional response
    • What emotions are present upon viewing the object?
    • These responses are significant because they are usually shared and can help in analysis
    • Step 3 – Speculation
      • Theories and hypotheses
        • Sum up the previous steps in order to develop reasons why what has been observed may be true
        • This step should be creative and have few limitations
  • Program of research
    • Consult evidence other than the object in order to validate hypotheses
    • This is a circular process in that as more is learned about the context of the object, more may also be gleaned from the object

During this analysis, Prown cautions the analyzer to maintain separation between steps. For example, attempt to keep the emotional affect of an object from tainting the initial description of it.

The second model of analysis comes from E. McClung Fleming’s Artifact Study: A Proposed Model. He proposes that there are five properties of objects and that four operations should be performed on each of the properties.

  • Properties
    • History
      • Where, when, by whom the object was made?
  • Material
    • What is the object made of?
  • Construction
    • How was the object made?
  • Design
    • “Includes the structure, form, style, ornament, and iconography of the object”
  • Function
    • Uses (intended function) of the object in its culture
    • Roles (unintended uses) of the object in its culture
    • Operations
      • Identification
        • What is it?
        • Classify it
        • Determine whether it is genuine
        • Chief objective is to provide accurate information about the five properties of the artifact
  • Evaluation
    • Judgment of aesthetic quality and workmanship
    • Factual comparison of one object with others of its kind
  • Cultural Analysis
    • What is the relationship of the object to its culture?
    • Contextualize it
  • Interpretation
    • What is the relationship of the object to our culture?
    • Relies on a fact about the object and a key aspect of our current value system that is rich enough to have self-evident significance

As you can see, I spent more time detailing Prown’s model. I did this because I like it more. I think it provides a more discrete progression of analysis from the base, concrete components of an object to its abstractions. With Fleming’s model, a prior knowledge of the object almost seemed necessary. I also think Prown’s method is more systematic, and more refined. Finally, I think although Prown’s steps at times deal with affect, it is not as vague. I think Fleming’s could produce acceptable analysis, but Prown’s makes more sense to me. I plan to use Prown’s model as a guideline for in class analysis, but I also plan to focus more on the speculation stage since that seems very similar to doing history. Deciding on this guideline has made me more confident about diving back into MC.

The second reason this week’s work made me feel better about using MC is manifest in an excerpt in The Role of Objects in Active, Distributed Meaning-Making by Shawn Rowe. This is a chapter from the book Perspectives on Object-centered Learning in Museums. The quote is from Learning in the Museum by George E. Hein. It reads:

Constructivist learning situations require two separate components, first a recognition that        in order to learn the active participation of the learner is required…Second, constructivist education requires that the conclusions reached by the learner are not validated by whether or not they conform to some external reality, but whether they “make sense” within the constructed reality of the learner. (p. 34)

This is essentially a reiteration of a foundational tenet of this class – that the traditional method of conveying historical information from one source, uncontested – is outdated and inferior. But for some reason this quote spoke to me. Until now I was hesitant about introducing MC in a class. I’ve unknowingly felt constrained by making sure students understand what “really happened.” But I am mixing up the goals of utilizing MC in the first place. Using MC is about exploring, it’s about creating a connection, it’s about questioning, and it’s about making meaning with something all in order to engage students and help them develop more than the ability to regurgitate facts. Learning the traditional “factual knowledge” is simply a byproduct of utilizing MC.

Similar to MC, As Ted Ansbacher stated about museum exhibits in Experience, Inquiry, and Making Meaning, “expecting uniform outcomes from an exhibit is an impossible goal” (24). Meanings will differ, just as history differs. After reading this quote, I felt like I unbuttoned my pants after a Thanksgiving meal. I didn’t feel constrained anymore. I felt a release. And I’m ready to take on my own analysis of an object.

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