Thursday 10 February 2011

What is Material Culture?

At last week's New History Lab session, one of the comments on Miriam's paper about Trekkie material culture was that they had never understood what material culture was and how it could be useful. "Typical historian, stuck in a book," I grumbled inwardly to myself. "It's not such a mystery!" But then I realised that this sort of reaction was not conducive to the spirit of collaboration that we were trying to achieve, and indeed that our upcoming session on A History of Leicester in 10 Objects could be very helpful in giving people insights into exactly that.
But what is it about stuff that makes people so terrified of working with it? Did they have traumatic childhoods with hoarder parents where they spent their fifth birthday stuck under a collapsed pile of ancient National Geographic magazines, and now they can't bear the thought of looking at objects? You'd be surprised at how prevalent this phobia of material culture is: a very highly placed individual at one of the national museums in this country admitted to the fact that if he was locked in a room with objects, he wouldn't know what to do with them. Good thing he's not often called on to be a curator, I guess!
Unfortunately, people who claim to look at material culture often don't. Descriptions of how this or that domestic good was described in novels or parish records isn't material culture - it's still literary and historical studies, I'm afraid. However, the best kind of material culture studies marry these descriptions with surviving artefacts and its visual depictions. They have a grasp of the wider social context of an item's production and consumption, as well as how its very materiality affected the behaviours of people who encountered it. The amazing thing about stuff is that it stymies you with its presence: it's there, undeniably. You can't claim that it can be put down to some error of punctuation or a slip of the brush; no, it was made, and used, and has survived. And you can touch it and use it in your own ways - sometimes physically, sometimes not.
Because sometimes, an object is not an object. Or rather, it's not just an object. It can stand in as a physical metaphor, a symbolic good; by being a product of a nexus of needs and associations and identities, it can reflect all or some of them - it just depends what prisms you choose to use! And that is what we will attempt to demonstrate next week, each in our own esoteric interdisciplinary way: that Leicester, its history, and its objects, have materiality and meanings in and for the present and the past. And hopefully, you will learn that material culture is good to think with.