Yes, but what does it all MEAN?

This past fall I taught an undergraduate course on American material culture. It was my first go at this type of course. I’ve taught “traditional” history courses covering everything from medieval & early modern Europe to American women’s history (my main academic training was in this field), and the various US surveys. Public history and museum studies are my strength though, since it is in this field that I keep most up to date. Over a year ago, when the chair of the department and I were discussing some additions to the public history certificate program I suggested a material culture class. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Just think about it…I’m serious, really think about it…what would you include in a survey class on American material culture? Is your mind blown yet? If it isn’t you didn’t think about it hard enough. At least I was limited to American material culture, so that narrowed down to say, oh, 500 years give or take. I didn’t include many native items because as it was, I was skimming over centuries of European-American material culture, how could I do justice to the varied nations that lived here prior to contact? That topic would have to wait for another course. So then I needed to figure out what kinds of material culture would we discuss in the class. Works of art were cut—art history courses would fill that gap—but still that left decorative arts, arms and armaments, tools and machinery, transportation, architecture, textiles and costume, and even household appliances. And that’s just a short list. In the end, I decided to focus much of the class on decorative arts with the thought that if the students were to enter the museum field, this class of objects were what made up much of small to medium sized museum and historical society collections.  If I teach the course again, however I think I will expand the scope to include more “industrial” material culture, or what Chenhall’s nomenclature calls “Tools & Equipment for Materials.” Since the further we are removed from the process of making objects, the more difficult it is to understand the culture that created and used them.

One of the biggest challenges of the class was not explaining the various styles, influences and regional differences found in American decorative arts. Nor was getting the students to identify the differences between them (after all, isn’t that what school teaches one to do, parrot “correct” answers back to the instructor?). What I found I was repeating over and over was,  “yes, but what does it mean?” Sure, early 19th century American style was influenced by discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum but why? Yes, the early 20th century moved from the fluidity of art nouveau to the sleek, hard surfaces of art deco almost overnight, so what?

Just as “traditional” history courses use the the short answer in exams – the who, what, where, when, why (or significance) of an event, place or person; material culture studies requires the same kind of analysis. Just because you can tell me the glass jug pictured was mold-blown with applied handle in the second quarter of the 19th century likely in Pittsburgh and falls within the Classical Revival style, that does not tell me why this object is important. At its core, that is what museums do and that is what people who want to work in museums need to understand. Yes, knowing WHAT you have in your collections is important but equally important is knowing WHY those objects exist in the first place. That is how we can make history relevant to people through objects.