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Thomas Hornor. Broadway, New-York. Shewing Each Building from the Hygeian Depot Corner of Canal Street to beyond Niblo’s Garden, 1836. Aquatint and etching with hand-coloring, aquatint by John William Hill, printed by W. Neale, New York, published by Joseph Stanley & Co., New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures, Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954 (54.90.703).

Scope of the Institute

Scholars of material culture utilize all kinds of things—from postcards to skyscrapers—as rich, evocative sources for understanding societies and cultures, past and present. Material culture studies embraces social and cultural history; historical archaeology; anthropology and folklore; art and architectural history; literature; and cultural studies. And the study of material culture is an integral part of the expanding world of public humanities scholarship as it is practiced in collecting institutions and in digital media. Collections in museums and historic sites preserve the historical visual and material record, and they are powerful vehicles for student learning in person and online.

As folklorist Henry Glassie puts it, “We live in material culture, depend upon it, take it for granted, and realize through it our grandest aspirations.” Artifacts are extensions of our bodies, but they are also extensions of human minds in all their complexity. Through material culture, and through the ways that we engage in social performance using objects, we represent ourselves to ourselves, and to each other. Recent humanities-based scholarship on material culture demonstrates a growing emphasis on studies of people-object relations with a concurrent use of an ethnographic approach to objects. Most recently, scholars have explored the idea that objects have “social lives,” careers, or trajectories whereby their roles and meanings change over time.

Woman Daguerreotypist with Camera and Sitter, ca. 1855. Sixth-plate ambrotype. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 2005.27.5. © Nelson Gallery Foundation. Photo: Thomas Palmer.

Yet the study of objects made or modified by human beings remains underutilized by humanists. The assumption is that coming to, and succeeding in, the study of things as an established scholar is difficult. This National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute 2017, American Material Culture: Nineteenth-Century New York, addresses this concern in a collaborative setting where experimentation is welcome. The Institute faculty will help Summer Scholars broaden the use of American material in their teaching and research, offering a variety of experiences in “learning to look” at the material and visual record. Our goal is to expand the ranks of college teachers who use these wonderful materials for their teaching and scholarship in a rigorous and meaningful way, and who can pass along training to their own students in turn.

The Institute’s daily sessions will include seminar-style conversations and lectures; hands-on experiences and activities promoting innovative classroom practice; individual consultations between faculty and participants; and field trips to museums and historic sites that collect the material culture of greater New York (e.g., walking tours and tours of special exhibitions). We are especially interested in fostering creative material culture pedagogy in the classroom, in public collections, and through digital media. Some sessions will encourage experiential learning and play with objects, while others will invite participants to explore digital avenues for teaching material culture, or to develop blended approaches that combine hands-on and digital work. The digital turn in the humanities has actually increased the visibility of material culture studies in recent years. Online museum collection catalogs and sophisticated digital exhibitions make available, in a virtual form, more material culture for use by college teachers and extend the possibilities for suggestive encounters with artifacts. Further, the rise of open source platforms such as WordPress and Omeka makes it easy for faculty and students to develop their own digital exhibitions and projects and join the public conversations about material culture.

Wallpaper Decorated with New York City Landmarks, ca. 1840–50. Block-printed paper in colors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures, Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954 (54.90.734).

While nineteenth-century New York City will serve as our case study for the four weeks of the Institute, we will explore important issues of broad curricular impact that go well beyond New York and can be applied by Summer Scholars to their own locales. For example, we will study the material culture of ethnicity, race, and class by visiting a range of cultural institutions and historic places. These sites will include the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of Chinese in America, and the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, which interprets the complex ethnicity of the neighborhood’s nineteenth-century inhabitants. During each visit, participants will study objects with the aid of those institutions’ staff. We also will tour the site of Seneca Village in Central Park, once a thriving antebellum African American and Irish immigrant community. Further, New York’s role as a national center of cultural production in the nineteenth century means that its products—the popular prints of lithography firms such as those of Currier and Ives, the products of metropolitan furniture shops, the readymade clothing sewn in Lower East side sweat shops—increasingly reached a national market of consumers, allowing participants to consider the relationship between regional and national taste cultures.

Please direct all application inquiries to: nehinstitute@bgc.bard.edu, and for more details visit the Application Instructions and Contact Information page.

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