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Material Culture

The study of the past has changed in many ways--as you have been studying in this module. We, the historians, have understood the relationship between 'self' and 'other' in new ways, have approached subjects like gender, race, and ethnicity in different ways, and understood relationships between the global north and the global south in different ways. But what has also changed are the sources we use to study history. We no longer just look at the human world, but at histories of the non-human; we no longer just look at texts, but at objects; we don't just look at objects related to white elite men, but at the things that are inextricably bound up with histories of gender, race, ethnicity, migration and mobility. In fact, the study of material culture is interesting, precisely because objects (widely understood) can help us write those new kinds of history.

To write histories that take things seriously, we have to begin by giving thought to what 'things' are, and how those things acquire histories, before we can consider how we write the history of things and integrate the study of things into our repertoire of methods for studying the past.

Essential Reading

See Moodle for links to readings.

Kopytoff, Igor, 'The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process’ in Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things: Commodities In Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Online.

Nappi, Carla, ‘Surface tension: objectifying ginseng in Chinese early modernity’ in Paula Findlen, ed., Early modern Things: Objects and their Histories, 1500-1800, pp. 31-52

Overview: CWHT, ch. 20.


Seminar Questions

  • Are all things worthy of study for historians? Are some things off limits, and if so, why?
  • How do things acquire their histories, and how can we access those histories?
  • Why were historians hesitant to use material culture until the 1980s? OR 'Material culture emerged when historians fell in love anthropology in the 1980s.' Discuss.
  • How has the study of material culture changed other subjects, disciplines and areas of study? Check the further readings for this.


Further Readings

Leora Auslander, 'Gender, Sexuality and Material Culture', Contemporanea 19.3 (206): 474–80.

Nicole Belolan. “‘Confined to Crutches’: James Logan and the Material Culture of Disability in Early America.” Pennsylvania Legacies 17.2 (2017): 6–11.

Craig Clunas, 'Connected Material Histories: A Response', Modern Asian Studies 50.1 (2016): 61–74.

Serena Dyer, 'State of the Field: Material CultureLink opens in a new window'. History 106 (2021): 282-292.

Paula Findlen, ed., Early Modern Things: Objects and Their Histories, 1500-1800 (London, 2002)

Grasskamp and Juneja, eds., China, Europe, and the Trancultural Object, 1600-1800 (Springer, 2015).

Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, eds., The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (London, 2016).

Tim Ingold, Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14.1 (2007):1-16.

Sifiso Ndlovu, 'Material culture in Southern Ndebele identity making in post-apartheid South Africa', Anthropology Southern Africa 43.4 (2020): 218-232.

Giorgio Riello, "The “Material Turn” in World and Global History." Journal of World History 33.2 (2022): 193-232.

Şanlı, Ayşe. “Undocumented Migration and the Multiplicity of Object Lives.” Material Culture and (Forced) Migration: Materializing the Transient, edited by Friedemann Yi-Neumann et al., UCL Press, 2022, pp. 147–56.

Yi-Neumann, Friedemann, et al., editors. Material Culture and (Forced) Migration: Materializing the Transient. UCL Press, 2022.


Truffle Hunt

Material culture is everywhere around us, and so it is not difficult to find your own examples of material culture.

Obviously, fine examples of material culture are collected in museums, and most museums now have very fine online collections. I recommend these two to get you started, but then look for your own area of interest and find what museums have:

Victoria and Albert Museum online collection:

British museum online collection:


If you find a museum that doesn’t have the resources to put their collections online, then you can consider not only visiting the museum yourself, but also writing to the museum to ask about images.


For more ordinary objects, have a look at ethnographical collections (museums of ethnography), for example this one:


History of Science collections are also fabulous resources, for example, or the


But you can also think far more down to earth about objects that mean something in your own life, or collections of objects associated with parts of the world or communities of people you care about. Material culture is everywhere, literally!

Further orientation

An introductory approach to researching material culture for History students

1. We should attempt a description of the object itself, its physical attributes:

  • Assess the materials of the object. If it is a manufactured object, how was it made and when?
  • Production methods and manufacture, materials, size, weight, design, style, decoration and date are some of the key issues to address here, though different forms of material culture will require different questions.
  • If possible, find out how much such an item would cost for contemporaries.
  • If the object is a found or naturally occurring object, the materials of the object are still important and the shaping of the object (by the weather and/or human action, for example) may also leave traces.

2. We can place the object in a series of different contexts, historical and spatial, for example:

  • We can do this by drawing on the information gleaned in step 1, as well as by using a range of other evidence.
  • Depending on the nature of the object, we might explore who owned or used this (or similar) objects, when, and what for.
  • Some of this can also be gathered from handling, viewing or experiencing the objects themselves, an important part of the research process, and to be undertaken if possible.
  • Knowledge about the physical attributes of an object, combined with external information, should help us understand how it was used.

3. We can explore more fully the place of the object (or its type) in social, cultural and political context, perhaps including ‘documentary’ and ‘imaginative’ written documents, as well as visual references:

  • At this stage, and indeed throughout, the researcher will continue to engage with and reflect on the material nature of the object.

[Based on Karen Harvey, ‘Introduction: Historians, Material Culture and Materiality’ in Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), p. 18.]