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Applying History to Curation

The very first thing I want to tell you all about this unusual assessment is : DON’T WORRY! I will be training you all on how to do this piece in class, by bringing in an object and working through it with you step-by-step. And at the bottom of this page, I will be adding links to great examples and advice on how to work with 'material culture' (that is, 'stuff') when writing history. Last but not least, with the generous permission of two students from last year, I have added a couple of example curation essays to the page. The first looks at a loyalty card, and the second at a census form.

For now, it may help to think of the assignment as having three parts:

  1. Finding an object or image that reveals something about the trends and ideas we discuss in class. This first step is key: the better the fit between your object or image and the history we talk about, the easier the rest of the assignment will be.
  2. Learning as much as you can about the object or image: when was it created? By whom was it made or by what company was it commissioned or manufactured, and why (that is, what historical events, economic trends, or political, social and cultural changes prompted its creation)? What do we know about that creator/commissioner/manufacturer? Who was it intended for, either as an audience, or as a market? What did it do/what responses did it provoke? Did it reach the intended demographic, or others? Were there consequences, and if so, were they as intended or unintended? This is the hard part for lots of objects and images, so again, choosing that item well will really help. And note that you may not be able to answer all of these questions definitively. This is one of the big challenges of working with material culture, and we will talk about how to handle the gaps together.
  3. Drawing out what the object tells us about ‘surveillance states’ whatever you take that to mean.
  4. This curation exercise should demand the same level of skill and effort as writing a well-researched standard essay. However, because it requires you to demonstrate your command of a variety of different skills, I will allow your curation pieces to be up to 1500 words long without penalty.
  5. [Additional SPECS for 2023-24 I will expect you to use footnotes to cite the sources of your information, and I'd like to see a significant proportion of those sources being drawn from the scholarly literature -- though of course you may need to use less formal sources as well, to address very contemporary objects. Please include a bibliography, and don't forget to use double spacing and a 12 point font for your submitted essay.]


  • For a great example, take a look at what our very own PhD student, Imogen Knox, has done by exploring the very mundane historical object, the pin!
  • Here's another great one, this time written by a journalist, Erin Blakemore, and looking at a much more contemporary object, the home pregnancy test. Note the way she uses contemporary advertising as well as the physical object. What would you add to this story from a historian's point of view, to answer the questions above? Compare it to this one, about the same object, for the Smithsonian Museums where it is now housed.
  • This piece by Brenda Malone, talks about collecting and interpreting material culture from a museum curator's point of view, looking at Ireland's recent campaign to repeal its abortion legislation. It offers a great example of how objects both speak to, and speak about current events and perceptions.
  • And this one, by Alison Boyle, take on the objects of contemporary 'big science'.