Finding history in material culture

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 dureƩ, 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.