Learning Through Objects: An Introduction to the Teaching Modules

Learning Objectives

The main purpose of the teaching modules is to broaden the inquiry skill and research techniques of students. After completing each module, students should:

Material Culture Methodology

What is material culture?

Material culture is the study of all the things that individuals use, make, alter, discard or pass down to others. Material culture includes a wide range of physical objects, such as paintings and decorative arts; furniture; clothing and jewellery; machines; gravestones, monuments and memorials; farming, food preparation and manufacturing tools; items found in archaeological excavations; scientific, medical and musical instruments; automobiles; and houses and other buildings. Because these objects can be so diverse, material culture study is interdisciplinary and is practised by archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians, geographers, folklorists, museologists as well as by historians.

Why are objects important?

Objects, or artifacts, can act as another kind of historical source, which can be integrated with archival documents, photographs and secondary sources to form a more complete picture of the past. These objects can fill in the blanks in the historical record, especially when studying the lives of ordinary people who did not leave behind personal papers, or whose activities were not recorded by government documents, or covered by newspapers or biographers. Objects may also challenge the written record by showing what individuals believed or how they acted in private compared to how they presented themselves in public, or through their writings.

Module Instructions

There are various models of material culture study, but our teaching modules are based upon a modified version of the Winterthur Protocol, first developed by E. McClung Fleming of the Winterthur Museum at the University of Delaware Early American Culture program. The first stage of each module provides questions that guide students in assessing the history, materials, construction, design and function of selected artifacts by examining photographs of objects. This step can be completed alone as a short assignment. The second stage requires students to research the broader meanings of the objects, by identifying, evaluating, analyzing and interpreting them. The final step provides suggested primary and secondary sources to further the student's research in order to complete a more lengthy assignment.

Selected Readings on Material Culture

Brooks, Randall C. “Forty Years of Analytical Studies.” Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society 82 (2004): 4-9.

Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Elliott, Robert S. “Material History – Testing a Method for Artifact Analysis.” Material History Bulletin 20 (1986): 87-92.

Finley, Gregg. “The Gothic Revival and the Victorian Church in New Brunswick: Toward a Strategy for Material Culture Research.” Material History Bulletin 32 (1990): 1-16.

Fleming, E. McClung. “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model.” Winterthur Portfolio 9 (1974): 153-61.

Glassie, Henry. Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Kingery, W. David, ed. Learning from Things: Method and Theory of Material Culture Studies. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Lubar, Steven and W. David Kingery, eds. History from Things: Essays on Material Culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Miller, Daniel, ed. Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter. London: UCL Press, 1997.

Pocius, Gerald L., ed. Living in a Material World: Canadian and American Approaches to Material Culture. St. John’s, Newfoundland: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1991.

Prown, Jules David. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method.” In Art as Evidence: Writings on Art and Material Culture. Pp. 69-95. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Schlereth, Thomas J., ed.  Material Culture: A Research Guide. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1985.