Matter is everywhere and all around us. Much of it has been crafted, designed, altered, or in some way or other manipulated by human hands or minds. That manipulation was indicated by the Romans with the word “cultura.” The world bears growing witness to the presence of humanity through the material traces and alterations we leave behind. The aim of the Bard Graduate Center book series “Cultural Histories of the Material World” is to slow down and pay close attention to these traces, to follow these objects across time and space and see what new histories they reveal. Through a broad scope of scholarly disciplines and perspectives, this series explores and contextualizes different facets of a diverse range of objects, spaces, structures, and other manifestations of the physical in order to better make sense of our shared human condition.

Whether the object of inquiry is large and conspicuous—the entire Mediterranean or the Caribbean, for instance, as in The Sea: Thalassography and Historiography (2013)—or small, overlooked, or even disregarded—such as the crudely formed wax models of body parts left at temple altars around the world, as in Ex Voto: Votive Giving Across Cultures (2016)—it is by paying close attention to materiality and the forms of the physical world that we begin to see the interconnectedness of time and place and (most importantly) of people themselves as they relate to each other and to the environment they occupy.

Indeed, this interconnectedness is of central importance for the author of our most recently published book. In the preface to the English translation of his monumental In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics (2016; originally published 2003), Karl Schlögel offers some timely advice:

Deterritorialization and increasingly irrelevant boundaries in some areas contrast with newly drawn and enforced demarcations elsewhere; the devastation of traditional places and spaces, with the production of wholly new spaces. These simultaneous contrarian tendencies create the urgent need for a fresh survey of our world. If we hope to find our way in a new era, we need to be able to take our bearings in the space we inhabit. If the old familiar landscape is coming apart, we must seek to trace the contours and relief of the new world that is coming into being.

We must, he admonishes through a series of brilliant short essays, pay attention to place, to the circumstances and surroundings that have brought us to the present. All the standard bric-a-brac of life—the old ticket stubs, address books, timetables, crumpled cigarette wrappers, street signs, lampposts—none of it is there just by chance. History, he insists, takes place. Everything now around us, while contributing to and shaping our spatial identity, at the same time provides us with clues and insights into the past. We must follow the grade school dictum and know our history in order to understand where we are and where we are going; but in order for this to be truly possible we must pay closer attention to the spaces that surround us and to what actual things can tell us. We have to have an open mind.

In Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge (2014), the contributors critique the old Aristotelian division between making on the one hand and knowing on the other, arguing that craftspeople—from gardeners to glassblowers to surgeons—obtain a direct, tacit knowledge of nature through experience that is impossible to replicate through any other method, whether illustrative, theoretical or in any other way discursive. The editors argue that without direct knowledge of materials—something that has always been essential for craftspeople and practitioners—scholars are at risk of alienating themselves from entire worlds of lived experience. This deprives their knowledge of a vital richness that should be as much a part of history as the kind usually written in books such as these. One long-standing deviation from this divide is found in museum conservation departments that combine scholarly insights with a deep, first-hand knowledge of materials. Paradoxically, material acumen in the modern museum is often employed for the explicit purpose of denying the inevitably of decay while artificially enhancing the longevity of an object. “Tangible things are transformed by time,” the editors write in the introduction, “dying and decaying, whatever we may try to do to preserve them …”

The study of dying and decaying things and our attempts to preserve them is a line of inquiry that some of our volumes, such as Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China, 1500–1800 (2012) and The Anthropology of Expeditions: Travel, Visualities, Afterlives (2015), carry several steps further. A multitude of authors across both of these volumes self-consciously explore comparative aspects of their own disciplines—the history of antiquarianism on the one hand and anthropology on the other—and unravel how, historically, scholars have related to objects and to the people who created them. Historical studies such as these will provide valuable touchstones for future scholarship on material culture yet to be written, both in this series and elsewhere.

At present, in the four years, two publishers, and seven books of the series’ existence, our distinguished writers—already numbering over 100—have contributed an astonishing assortment of chapters. Taken together, they give us a kaleidoscopic kind of insight into the kinds of histories that open up when we give greater consideration to objects and the material world. By looking closely at a diverse array of stuff or things or bodies—whether reflecting on the consumption of swelling toad fish from the Chesapeake Bay or the creation of monumental landscape inscriptions carved into mountains in China—we continue to discover an ever-changing and varied world that nonetheless is bound inextricably together by a shared human history and by cultures that continue to bleed into one another, filling out space and time.