Objects and artefacts, by nature often strongly connected to specific times and places, are particularly useful sources for historians, and material culture - the umbrella term for such items - is increasingly seen as a vital component of historical research. This course examines the use of material culture in local and regional history. Using freely available online collections supplemented with recent scholarship and up-to-date books and articles as well as many fine objects and artefacts, we will discover how historians explore the people and places of the past using material culture.
Prospective students may like to explore the online collections of the University of Oxford’s museums including TREASURES | Ashmolean Museum and Collections | Oxford University Museum of Natural History to find out some of the information that objects and artefacts can give us. You can also read an extract from the book that will be our key text here: Writing Material Culture History: : Writing History Anne Gerritsen Bloomsbury Academic
We will start by considering material culture as both category and methodology, looking at how historians, archaeologists, literary scholars, art historians and many others have come together to create a vibrant area of scholarship. The first part of the course introduces a range of material culture through case studies to investigate sources that help us trace objects and artefacts in collections and archives, as well as the built and natural environment. These case studies draw on material from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to reflect the research specialism of the tutor, but during the course we will explore a range of historical eras, from the sixteenth century to the recent past. As we move on from the case studies, we will focus on things of many types and sizes, taking in not just heirlooms and silver spoons, but also petticoats, riding paraphernalia, castles and a fabulous array of souvenir tea-towels. In the weekly live sessions participants will be encouraged to share objects and artefacts of their own or from their own research.
The course will focus on the social and material histories of the objects and artefacts we encounter, examining them for meanings that go beyond their outward function and linking them with other objects, spaces and places. It will show how the methodologies of material culture provide historians and other scholars with transferable skills that can be applied to objects and artefacts across historical eras and geographical locations but our focus will always be on what these items tell us about the people of the past as they went about their daily lives.