Scope of the Institute

Scope of the Institute
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Scope of the Institute

Objects matter. Material culture scholars utilize artifactual evidence such as consumer goods, architecture, clothing, landscape, decorative arts, and many other types of material.  “Material objects matter,” Ann Smart Martin has written, “because they are complex, symbolic bundles of social, cultural and individual meanings fused onto something we can see, touch and own.”  The study of material culture has developed into a rich interdisciplinary field with practitioners from art history, historical archaeology, anthropology, folklore, cultural history, literature and other areas. With the rise of the new social history of the 1970s, material culture studies held the promise that these objects of everyday life captured the experiences of people who typically did not leave written records but their objects and household goods.  Jules Prown told us that material culture’s great promise was engaging empathetically with other cultures: “By undertaking cultural interpretation through artifacts, we engage the other culture in the first instance not with our minds, the seat of our cultural biases, but with our senses. Figuratively speaking, we put ourselves into the bodies of the individual who made or used these objects; we see with their eyes and touch with their hands.”  A study of objects as performing symbolic action has been joined by recognition that objects represent some form of culture and we need to learn how to “read” it.  We have seen the use of humanities scholarship in history museums and historic houses as part of a broader cultural contextualization of the visual and material record. There has been a growing emphasis on studies of people-object relations with a concurrent use of an ethnographic approach to objects.  Most recently, scholars have developed the idea that objects have “social lives” and we need to take account of how objects have careers or trajectories whereby meaning for consumers changes over time.

While definitions of material culture still remain a matter of scholarly debate, there is little doubt that the study of objects made or modified by humans, what we call artifacts, remains underutilized by humanists because of the assumption that special training is required, along with the difficulties of obtaining access to museum and other repositories of the physical evidence of human culture. While graduate training has long been available in a few preeminent academic institutions and leading museum collections have offered fellowships to their collections to pursue research, the institute seeks to broaden the use of American material in teaching and research to include the many teachers and scholars who desire further training in “learning to look” and the analysis of artifacts.  We want to expand the ranks of college teachers who use these wonderful materials for their teaching and scholarship in a rigorous and meaningful way or pass along adequate training to their students, if their own backgrounds have not included formal instruction.

There are compelling reasons to hold such an institute now.  The digital turn in the humanities has increased the visibility of material culture in recent years. The growing proliferation of online museum collections makes available, at least in a virtual form, more and more of the these materials for use by college teachers; online cataloguing now enables easier preparatory work for visits to museums and other repositories for hands-on work.  Sophisticated digital exhibitions extend the promise of encounters with artifacts, without always providing the same background necessary to understand the cultural meaning of those materials.  Too often, these wonderful objects are introduced in the classroom or even introduced into the scholarly monograph as mere illustrations to complement the main discussion, rather than to derive insights and understandings that might not be available from the textual record alone.

This NEH Summer Institute at the Bard Graduate Center will provide a significant opportunity to obtain training in the literature and practice of American material culture studies.  Equally important, participants will gain access to prominent New York City museums and historic houses and other collections, where we will study objects with the aid of those institutions’ curatorial and other staff.  Finally, given the expertise of the faculty involved in the institute, we will model how these materials can be used in the classroom through our discussions and the sharing of exemplary assignments.

We have four major intellectual goals in this institute.  First, we will provide a broad introduction to the historiography of material culture studies in the United States, with an emphasis on methods and models, with examples drawn from art history, history, anthropology, sociology, historical archaeology, cultural geography, folklife studies, cultural studies, and literary criticism.  Second, nineteenth-century New York City will serve as our case study for the four weeks of the institute, drawing on the rich existing scholarly literature and the city’s wonderful range of local collections in well-known museum collections and lesser known historic house museums.  The city will be our laboratory to explore important issues of broad curricular impact that go well beyond New York and can be applied by the participants to their own locales, such as ethnicity and class, by using a range of cultural institutions that will include the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of the Chinese in America, and the Lower East Side House Museum—a tenement house museum that interprets the complex ethnicity of the neighborhood’s nineteenth-century inhabitants.  Because New York became a national center of cultural production in the nineteenth century, the prints of lithography firms such as those of Currier and Ives or the products of metropolitan furniture shops—either high or low—increasingly reached a national market of consumers.  Third, those involved in the institute will gain facility with the methods and modes of material cultural study by intensive engagement with the wide range of materials that were made or used in the nineteenth century. Our hands-on work will make this possible and allow for the transferability of the institute’s work to the particular teaching or research goals of individual participants.  Many examples of the items we will study are also available in local institutions across the United States today for participants to use in their subsequent teaching or research.  We will also make use of leading regional collections during our field trips to some of the Hudson River estates and the Yale University Art Gallery.  Fourth, we are also excited to include an introduction to the use of new media by making ample use of our innovative Digital Media Lab and its staff of pioneering practitioners.  The Bard Graduate Center has developed an expertise in this new field by its collaborations with several leading universities and museums, as well as its own staff of innovative practitioners of new media pedagogy and production. We will explore various digital tools such as Omeka, developed by George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, that enables teachers and students with the ability to “curate” virtual exhibitions of artifacts in a far easier technical fashion than older web page construction.


Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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