In the writing of history much emphasis has been placed in the study of primary verbal documents, essentially manuscripts and printed materials. Archives and written sources have been the main means of documenting history. However, these sources are not inclusive and rarely offer much of a glimpse into social groups that were not wealthy or powerful. Farmers, artisans, lower classes, and ethnic minorities are often underrepresented in traditional or written records. Thus, in order to learn about these groups we must make use of alternate forms of evidence.
One such form of evidence is objects or artifacts. By an artifact we refer to some concrete item that has been created by humans. In other words, a table or chair will meet the criteria of material culture but a tooth would not. The object in mind has to also play some significant role in the history of human development. Examples of this type will vary, from a nail to a piece of rope, from a door to a hammer.
What is material culture?
It is important to first differentiate between objects, items, things, and artifacts as synonyms of what scholarly is referred to as material culture
. Additionally, it is worth noting that this paper discusses material culture with an emphasis on domestic artifacts versus commercial, public, or industrial life artifacts. Also the emphasis is on objects, who made these objects, the process of making these objects, and the people who used them. The basic premise of this unit is that these representations of material culture tell a story about the values of those who designed, created, produced, and used them.
Jules David Prown defines material culture as:
‘The study through artifacts of the beliefs - values, ideas, attitudes and assumptions
- of a particular community or society at a given time’
In other words, it refers to the material of the object and the purpose for which it was created. This definition however lacks some depth. Therefore, throughout this paper material culture will be defined as:
“The study through artifacts (and other pertinent historical evidence) of the belief
systems - the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions- of a particular community
or society, usually across time”
The study of a man-made object entails the study of materials, the source of those materials, the creator of the object, the process followed, the workshop, and the time frame from conception to completion. Furthermore, an object reflects cultural characteristics as portrayed by the values of the person creating the object, the designer, the individual who commissioned the object, the person who bought it, and as an extension the society in which the object was used. The importance of this can be clearly seen at the point of analysis in trying to understand the value and importance of an object.
Mac Fleming, in viewing and looking at the cultural values reflected by a given artifact, proposed to include the following elements: 1) craftsmanship, 2) raw materials, origin, and destination, 3) technology of that era, 4) wealth of the users, 5) customs and social patterns, 6) images reflecting popularity of the object, and 7) form and function.
In the best of scenarios the interpretation of cultural artifacts is a complex endeavor in so much as the fact that there is a reinterpretation, revision, a new way of thinking, and of evaluating such artifacts. This is also the case given that history in itself is a subjective and artificially created story composed of fragmented and biased interpretations.
In the case of material culture, an artifact has a long history in time; multiple past moments. When we select that object at a moment in time, we ignore and devalue other past and future moments and by doing so, take away from the value of such an object. It begs to ask oneself, what is the original meaning that was applied to a given artifact by the original owners? Here we begin the speculation process based on our deduction and description stages.
Another aspect of material culture that reflects present values is how an object of the past acquires value as an object of the present. With the passage of time, there is a change in values, ideas, attitudes, needs, and uses. An object can begin having the value as something of use within the context of a given culture and time period and later become an ‘outsider’, because of the changes in values, etc.
As we will be able to see as we look at functions and period rooms, there are many different changes taking place in time and space that are reflected in the way that people live; the way that they interact with one another and with the artifacts that surround them; and the values that they cherish as individuals, families or communities.
Observation of material culture: a protocol
If we are to teach our students to think broadly, to think outside the box; we must provide our students with a framework that will allow them to expand instead of contract, to enquire instead of fill in the blank, to imagine instead of copy, or to encourage instead of inhibit the growth.
The following steps can be considered as a framework or scaffold that will allow the students to begin the enquiry process on material culture: production, skill and labor; lives of the object; and memories associated with the objects.
Production, skill, and labor
Any artifact has a maker. Prior to the maker, there is an idea, someone who thinks about the object from its inception. This person might or might not be the same person who designs and finally makes the item. The term of production here encompasses the previous three steps (ideation, design, creation). Each of these individuals (or possibly the same person) must have a skill and there is a labor that is associated from the beginning to the end of the process. At each of these steps, the artifact offers us a window into the characters of that time period, a narrative, which is often not looked upon as adding any knowledge or value to the already written story.
This narrative is of necessary importance for us if we are to grasp and better understand the incomplete story of how the artifact came into existence, and what it tells us about who we are as a community.
Lives of the object
There are multiple contexts to an object. The different lives of an object can be best visualized in terms of a beginning and an end or even in a spiral from where the object itself progresses from beginning to end and is elevated to a new beginning. The same can be said of architectural elements. The main door, with time, moved from the front of the house, then to the side, and finally to the back of the home.
An example of the different lives of an object can be best depicted with an example. This could be the case of the parlor chair. In its inception the chair played a dominant place in the parlor, the public part of the home. That is, the area where the family received the daily visitors who called in.
As the time period progressed, the parlor became the living room and that chair of which I spoke, might have been moved to the back of the house. That is, the private sphere of the home. Here the chair had a different life, a different meaning from the original one. Eventually the chair could have been moved to the garage, attic or storage area. This same chair, that originally sat the guests, now the family might hold on to it because of sentimental value; maybe it was the chair where grandma sat, or grandpa’s smoking chair and thus worth saving as a family heirloom.
Once that chair left the workshop or factory and made it to the house, this cultural artifact, took a life of its own. The object has multiple contexts based on the person who made it or bought it, what the intended purpose of the one who made it was and what the person bought it for. Where was the object bought and where did it end up, and when was it built and when was it bought. This object could have been passed to the different generation, sold at a tag sale, or burnt on a cold winter night.
Memories associated with the objects
Earlier when discussing the lives of a given artifact, I briefly touched upon the idea that all artifacts have memories associated to them. When we look at the old chair in the attic, soon we attach the memory of a different time or a person that we associate with it. These memories are not static but evolving according to the values and multiple contexts. The same way that an object may have multiple lives it also has multiple memories associated with it, either in time or in its location.
The CD tower case
Not long ago, I found a used 4 feet tall iron CD storage tower case in the shape of a steeple. At either side there were two smaller steeples about a foot and a half tall. The original purpose of this object was to store music at a time when CDs had replaced LP records. In turn, as the influence one of the most significant cultural artifacts of the XXI century, the Ipod, was growing, the life of the storage case was declining.
When that original owner bought the CD tower case, the main location of the object would have been in a prominent place in the living room, next to the sound system. Not only did it replace the cabinet where the LP records where stored, but it also had an aesthetic purpose. With the arrival of new technology all this music in the storage tower, could be now transferred into a hard-drive and inside an Ipod. Thus the tower case lost its original functionality, lost its main purpose and it ended up moved to a different room. The object acquired a new life. Eventually, this tower became part of a garage sale and acquired yet another life. It could have regained its original function as a storage device had somebody who was looking for such a storage device bought it. However, in this case it became a trellis in my garden for my clematis Florida ‘Sieboldii’. Now, this metal tower plays a prominent role by my mailbox, not as a storage device, but as a support to the growth of one of my favorite plants.
As we can see from the previous discussion in defining what material culture is, the interrelation between the physical object and human behavior helps us to begin understanding the who, what, where, when, and why in objects, ourselves, and our culture. There is a memory association that conjures up a set of shared ideals, beliefs and philosophies of people at a certain time period and location.
It is these values and ideals that we attempt to study when talking about material culture, as we observe an artifact of a given time period, social class, or physical region. In the end, it is not the object that is of importance, but the interpretations that we make from such an object that truly matters. Therefore, the goal of this unit on material culture is that of providing students with a framework that will allow for interpretation based on cultural artifacts within the context of the period room.
In studying objects from any given period, we will often discover how people’s beliefs are not static or necessarily shared by the whole community, region, state, or country. Yet this process of study can depict what values were held in the majority, minority, or the status quo as we explore a given artifact.
It is not that we are attempting to create a hermetically closed description of an era or a period based on the study of some representative artifact or period room. We are trying to amplify what life was or must have been as we look beyond the object itself by recognizing the various personal, familial, and social contexts of what is in front of us.