CDMC Director Publishes Handbook on Material Culture

Sarah Carter headshot

A Q&A with Dr. Sarah Anne Carter, co-editor of the new Oxford Handbook of History and Material Culture.

Dr. Sarah Anne Carter is Visiting Executive Director of the Center for Design and Material Culture and Visiting Assistant Professor of Design Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is co-editor of the very first Oxford Handbook of History and Material Culture, now available from Oxford University Press (April 21, 2020). Prior to joining the School of Human Ecology, she was the Curator and Director of Research at the Chipstone Foundation, where she directed its Think Tank Program in support of progressive curatorial practice. Carter earned her PhD in American Studies and her MA and BA in History from Harvard University, as well as an MA from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

Below, Sarah answers a few questions about the field of material culture and its particular relevance and potential applications in this moment of COVID-19 pandemic response and social distancing.

What is material culture? 

Material culture refers to the physical traces of the past as well as scholarly methods for studying those physical traces. These may be things that humans have found and selected, adapted, or shaped for their use, whether physically, cognitively, or both. 

When I teach courses on material culture I endeavor to teach students how to move from object to idea, from the specific and concrete to the abstract. I have shared this approach in my book on the history of object-based learning, Object Lessons: How Nineteenth Century Americans Learned to Make Sense of the Material World (Oxford University Press, 2018), and through my work on the Tangible Things project, a collaboration with Handbook co-editor Ivan Gaskell and two of our Handbook authors, among others. Tangible Things includes a book, a MOOC through HarvardX, and a number of teaching videos. A personal favorite material culture video is “20 Questions to Ask an Object.”

How did the formal study of material culture come to be?

While there is a long history of collecting material things to understand the past, sometimes termed “antiquarianism,” material culture grew out of work in archaeology, social and cultural history, and American Studies in the 1970s and 1980s, with a goal of expanding the types of sources scholars used to inform their work. Material culture was a way to tell new stories about underrepresented people, everyday life, and unseen historical patterns. 

How did you come to the discipline yourself? 

I grew up attending Montessori school, where abstract concepts were unfolded concretely, and I started working in local museums in Boston when I was a teenager. As a first-year at Harvard, I learned about material culture by studying early American women’s history. It fascinated me that the material traces of the past could illuminate the stories of people who did not always appear in written records—especially women, children, people of color, and those who were poor or disabled. These approaches offered the radical potential to read against established narratives and understand how real people actually moved in the world. Over time, I was especially drawn to the emerging field of the history of children and childhood, where material culture plays an important role. 

What is most exciting to you about this book?

The Oxford Handbook of History and Material Culture is a broad and rather thick book featuring the work of 33 scholars from around the world. My co-editor Ivan Gaskell and I approached the puzzle of understanding the relationship between material culture and history through five main lenses. First, cognition: how do people think with and through things? Then, we looked to technology, or how do things help us achieve everyday goals? Next, the symbolic: what can things come to mean or signify, or, how do things relate to belief or the immaterial? The category of social distinction allowed us to think through how things sort people into groups or create boundaries and hierarchies. Finally, memory challenges us to ask how material things shape our understandings of the past. These five approaches offer a new framework for thinking about how material culture intertwines with the study of history and provides a roadmap for future scholars to explain the value of material sources. 

Sarah Anne Carter with Ivan Gaskell and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in storage at Harvard's Peabody Museum studying Native American basketry

Sarah Anne Carter, Ivan Gaskell, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich examine Native American basketry at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Gaskell is co-editor of the Handbook, and Ulrich, a mentor of Carter’s, is a contributor, as well as one of the people to whom the book is dedicated and a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant and Pulitzer Prize. Photo used with permission.

Can you name a particular object from the book that people might not expect to find in an academic text?

There are many wonderful essays in this book from both established and emerging researchers. Some unexpected items include an at-home science kit from the 1950s, nineteenth-century kitchens, everyday things confiscated during the Cultural Revolution in China, and 1980s punk fashion (especially the safety pin!). 

How can people connect with material culture at the School of Human Ecology?

The School of Human Ecology invites students and the community to engage with material culture approaches through the Center for Design and Material Culture, which is home to the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection (and its searchable online database!), the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, and the Ruth Davis Design Gallery, as well as a new Innovation Studio. While we are working remotely, you can connect to our programs by visiting our collection online, signing up for our occasional newsletter, and tuning in to our new biweekly Radio Chipstone material culture segment on WORT Radio (89.9 FM). We’ll soon have an updated website, too, with new online offerings.

Why does this matter now?

The current COVID-19 crisis is altering our relationship to material things. The stark choices we are all confronting as we practice social distancing—or we or our loved ones face quarantine or hospitalization—highlight what objects may afford or allow for. Some items, like cloth masks, might feel vital to our personal and community safety and our ability to move in the world, while other objects may seem to hold hidden risks, traces of unknown people who have engaged with them before. PPE and ventilators, which had been understood as supplies in a chain of financial decisions, are now transformed into vital life-saving tools for medical staff and patients. Objects come to stand in for new ways of interacting with each other as we do our part here in Wisconsin to flatten the curve. Masks, gloves, toilet paper, our children’s kindergarten worksheets, or the sourdough bread you may be baking or the seeds you have planted with the new time you have, take on metaphorical meanings and become physical receptacles for stories.

Our relationship to things will likely change in some ways forever due to this pandemic. The material traces of these transformations will be vital sources for future historians who want to understand how our university maintained the important work we do of supporting and educating our marvelous students through this crisis. An essay on that topic would be a wonderful future addition to the Handbook.

I can’t help but think about the red-checked cloth mask I have been wearing these past several days through that lens. The five material culture approaches developed in our book can shape the way I understand this small piece of cloth: 

  • Cognition—Can this item really help me determine where my germs end and another’s begin? 
  • Technology—What makes a safer mask and how do we know?
  • Symbolic—How does this item represent something I can do to help or something I can control? 
  • Social Distinction—How are others in my community approaching this? Why are we responding differently? How can I help?
  • Memory—What will this mask mean to us someday when this is over, perhaps sitting in an acid-free display box in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection? Whose story will it tell?

The material choices we make today matter to our individual lives and also reflect broader and meaningful cultural patterns. We are ideally situated to study these micro and macro patterns in the Center for Design and Material Culture and through the diverse approaches applied throughout the School of Human Ecology. I hope the Oxford Handbook of History and Material Culture, in terms of both content and method, is a meaningful contribution to this larger work.

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