Copper Day was an unexpected development of the ESRC Global and Local Worlds of Welsh Copper Project that I am currently working on at Swansea University. In addition to the summer exhibition, the development of web-accessible resources on copper history, digitisation and liaison with project partners and other bodies, Copper Day has emerged as probably what most people will remember the project for. It was initially an idea raised to respond to what some thought of as a rather elitist event held last October at the National Waterfront Museum on History, Heritage and Urban Regeneration. This was organised jointly by the project and the Institute of Welsh Affairs. That day had a specific aim in mind and that was to raise the issues surrounding heritage-led regeneration, what this has meant for other areas of Britain such as Cornwall and New Lanark in Scotland, and what this could mean in the future for Swansea. However, there was still a need to address how to satisfy a growing thirst for information on Swansea’s global copper heritage. What began as an idea for a ‘free people’s meeting to discuss things’ has ended up as, thanks to the willing and voluntary contributions and efforts of several individuals and organisations, a city-wide free festival of all things copper. On Saturday 5 March, (parts of) Swansea will once again (metaphorically) hear the clatter of the copperworks and (with no threat to health) smell the smog that choked the valley that was at the centre of a world industry for almost two centuries. From the Big Screen in Castle Square to the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University, we hope there will be something for everyone.
Being an historian of material culture isn’t easy. It confuses, it contradicts and it doesn’t categorise elegantly. When does material culture become more than just pretty pictures to illustrate your otherwise colourless prose? This has been something that I have been bothered with for as long as I have been working with objects and their interpretation. Doing this from the discipline of history has certainly caused moments of ‘it is a bird, is it a plane, no, it’s an artefact!’. But it has also been alluring and affirming, a bit like catching a glimpse of a colourful jay in your garden amongst the usual blackbirds, sparrows and magpies. You remember they exist and actually have been around and part of the scenery forever. Embracing material culture enables you to treat history as a genuine continuum of undulating change accented by sharper contrasts (evolution and events). Our material worlds are what has made, and continue to make us human. Our creation, destruction and manipulation of material things set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom that does not embrace the permanency of arte-fact quite like we do. There is a reason why monastics and ascetics feel compelled to eschew the things that remind them of ‘worldliness’. So, isn’t this worth more attention than a bookcover?
Part of the difficulty of explaining my approaches has been that there is never a short one. I wish I could say I work on Saint Not-Appearing-in-this-Blog, or on the Unusual Family Papers of a Private Library. It would be easy, people would give an approving nod as something they expect an historian to say they did, and we could then move on to complaining about our positions of privilege. I ought now to gently dismount from my high horse and do some explaining of what my approach to history and material culture actually comprises.
I use close-object analysis in equal measure to archives, photographs, illustrations and the raw data of an object record. Deconstructing technique and materials is as important as ascertaining the economic, social and cultural contexts of what necessitated / desired creation. Materials-based enquiry also allows me to throw off the shackles of periodisation. While there is nothing wrong with studying the material culture of a particular time span, the richness of information I can glean from studying a particular object or material over a longue dureé, e.g. copper working technique from the hearth to the factory. I want to know how and when changes in prospecting, mining, smelting, alloying, casting, beating, drawing, rolling, plating and recycling changed over a period 10,000 years. Extending the idea of object biographies to life cycle and spans of materials.