Hands On History

To know man we must study the things he has made… – E. McClung Fleming, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model”

Have you ever reached for something interesting in a store, only to be dissuaded by a “No Touching Allowed” sign? Or maybe you’ve been raised with the intimidating phrase, “You break it, you buy it.” We often find ourselves discouraged from experiencing objects – especially old or potentially fragile ones – using our hands. However, artifacts are an essential source of information for historians. In my first class of the new year, I had the opportunity to learn this lesson first-hand (literally) in a workshop on material culture.

So what do I mean by “material culture?” I mean that culture – our beliefs, ideas, norms, values, the intangible things that “glue” human society together – is manifested and can be understood through the objects we create. Objects are therefore not just the concern of archaeologists or anthropologists, but of historians – and anyone who wants to understand human beings more fully.

In a sense, these are the ideas that became the foundation for my paper on medieval mappaemundi, in which I argue that the maps themselves offer a wealth of information about how their makers conceived of “the world.” But in the writing of that paper, I was not able to travel around the world to actually see, smell, or handle these precious maps. The sensory experience is one of the distinguishing aspects of physical artifacts (as opposed to documents or images), and so I was excited to actually be able to handle some nineteenth-century objects from Western’s Medical Artifact Collection. I got to examine a Civil War-era amputation kit, which would have accompanied a surgeon onto the front lines. (Medical collections are particularly fun, as you have to make sure not to cut yourself, accidentally give yourself blood-borne diseases, expose yourself to dangerous chemicals including narcotics, and so on.) After learning about safe handling procedures, we used the various objects in the collection as prompts for further questions. What emotions might the objects have inspired in doctors or patients? What techniques were used to make them? Are these items traditional or novel? What do the materials suggest? How are these items expressive as well as functional? What sources could we use to find out more about these items? In each case, we were able to learn more from the objects than might be initially expected. For example, turn-of-the-century “cure-alls” revealed that fear of urbanization and modern life was medicated with items to make women relaxed and docile, and remedies for increased virility in men. The medical machines themselves not only indicate cultural anxieties, but they also reinforce prevailing gender norms of the period.

This is the very same amputation kit I got to handle, take apart, and examine in class.

Because artifacts are such an important source of information, public historians need to be concerned about how they can be made more available to the public, just as we are already concerned about the availability of documents, music, video footage and images. Where libraries, archives and databases help with the latter types of items, for artifacts we need to have museums. Both Michael Mahoney and E. McClung Fleming (among others) point out that our study of material culture is facilitated primarily through museums. They not only display and explain objects, they collect, catalogue, store and preserve them. The next time you visit a museum, take a closer look at the objects in the exhibits. Through this workshop and my prior experience at Banting House National Historic Site, I have learned that even the most mundane items have some story to tell, and all the pieces in an exhibit are included for a reason.

A great deal of this semester will be devoted to learning with objects and learning by making. Stay tuned as I make my first foray into truly “hands-on” history!


4 thoughts on “Hands On History

  1. jessmknapp says:

    Great post Stacey! It is quite astonishing the extended history that can be discovered by employing a cultural analysis on an object. The more I think about the opportunities for discovery the more I think I understand the metaphorical language of a teapot!

    • canadianstacey says:

      Thanks Jess! What did you think of Jules Prown’s analysis of the teapot in “The Truth of Material Culture”? I can see how different styles of teapot could indicate something about the society that made them, but I thought the “a teapot is subconsciously a metaphor for the primeval experience of breastfeeding” idea to be a little bizarre. How far is too far when we’re trying to “dig deeper” into an object? Is there a point in which analysis becomes speculation?

      • jessmknapp says:

        I felt the same way Stacey. I didn’t understand or even accept the idea of accessing the ‘dream world’ of an artifact while reading Prown’s article. A few days later it hit me, that we need to submerse ourselves into the history, the possible story(ies) if you will, of the artifact to gain various understandings or uses. Simply put, Things may not always be what they seem.
        Isn’t all analysis speculation simply justified by known truths, facts, and details ?

      • canadianstacey says:

        “Justified by known truths, facts, and details” – yes. But Prown lost me when he started talking about the “Ur-experience” of an object. It’s something I’ll have to give more thought to before I can come to terms with it… 🙂

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