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.
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!