Historical Research Workshop

Reading: “The Truth of Material Culture: History or Fiction?”, Jules David Prown

This last week’s reading came from History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, edited by Steven Lubar and W. David Kingrey.  What challenges and opportunities does working with material culture present?

Monday section: after participating in Luke Habberstad’s  analysis of a Chinese vessel, what did you learn about working with material culture?  How does Prown’s notion of “material as reflection of culture” compare and contrast with what Luke’s idea of “material making culture”?


history from things

10 comments for “Reading: “The Truth of Material Culture: History or Fiction?”, Jules David Prown

  1. April 2, 2013 at 5:20 PM

    Viewing artefacts as the only historical events that occurred in the past but survive into the present, and that they are the result of causes, seems to be the first step in studying artefacts as historical evidence and viewing them differently from other historical evidence, in that it can be experienced in some form (hopefully somewhat similarly to how it was experienced what it was made).
    Attempting to uncover cultural beliefs seems a daunting task, especially, as the author discusses, the fact that many cultural beliefs are not manifested in cultural artefacts, and are so widely held that they are never really talked about, and so for a historian they can easily become invisible. Here the author acknowledges this, and puts forward a way in which art can in some way fill the void;
    “We retrieve only the facts of what transpired; we do not retrieve the feel, the affective totality, of what it was like to be alive in the past. History is necessarily false; it has to be. On the other hand, literature can weave small fictions into profound and true insights regarding the human condition.”
    The discussion on metaphors was interesting, but I think historians need to be careful about not reading too much into these. For example I thought the teapot as a metaphor for a mother’s breast was stretching it pretty far, but this is of course open to interpretation and so shouldn’t be viewed as scientific, or definitive on way or the other.
    The author recognises that not only are the artefacts that we examine embedded and colored by the culture they come from, but we too are embedded in the culture we come from, and so our interpretations are colored and perhaps even clouded by our culture.

  2. Cassandra Carrasco
    Cassandra Carrasco
    April 2, 2013 at 8:11 PM

    I found this reading fascinating. I learned a tiny bit about material culture in a folklore class I took last semester but we really did not delve into the ideas of interpretation and analysis of style as much as glaze over the existence of artifacts. It makes me see objects in a different light, especially utilitarian ones’ which we all take for granted. I actually find that my rhetoric of visual culture class stresses a lot of the same ideas, with the addition of a healthy dose of suspicion towards the accuracy of interpretation and consciousness or lack there of in creation. Again, this is great–my favorite read so far.

  3. April 2, 2013 at 8:20 PM

    The reading this week was okay and interesting. I never really knew what material culture was and while reading this I kind of know what it is. The metaphors that were used to compare things in the reading were interesting though some parts I felt were too much, especially the teapot being a metaphor for a mother’s breast. I liked how the author explained the way artifacts are different from art. I did not even really think about the differences between artifacts and art. I think the author did a good job of explaining the differences between the two.

  4. April 4, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    While the author makes a great case that art is a reflection of culture and can be studied physically and symbolically, I wish he would have talked about the bias that material based history holds. I see object based history – especially less recent history – as overwhelmingly as white male upper class, at least in European studies. How do historians deal with the fact that most materials that survive reflect a small segment of the population?

    • April 5, 2013 at 10:34 AM

      Great point! As historians, we’re often limited by what falls into “paths of preservation”, whether it’s working with textual, visual, or material sources. Much of the historical record is lost because of problems with certain mediums’ longevity (i.e. many 20th century paperback books will not hold up well because of the acid used in cheap paper) or due to historical circumstance (i.e. the fire at the library of Alexandria). But, as you’ve touched on, active preservation is also strongly inflected by contested ideas of who is historically significant.

  5. April 5, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    I really liked Luke’s reading of how material is making culture.
    One thing I would like to remind is that we also should pay attention to the process how material was given cultural meaning by academia and who has the priviledge to add more meaning. I was more curious about the context;how, when, where, by whom the picture of the Chinese pot was taken and where the pot is exhibited and available right now.

  6. April 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM

    -How can we learn about and present our findings on the content of a historical text and its material cultural value simultaneously? (Considering that artifacts are “artistic fictions”)
    -Would the process of analyzing a material object be considered scientific, as if there is only one explanation for it (example, the pot) when artifacts and art are reduced to fiction?

  7. April 6, 2013 at 12:16 PM

    Well, I definitely see the merit in utilizing material culture as an alternative to written history but what about those who did not make the dishes or hand tools? I feel that the family is the basic unit of society and both what it’s adults and children spend their time doing reveals volumes about its values. What I’m trying to get across is perhaps in the realm of Professor Fass’ expertise but what about children’s history and their artifacts. I suppose another point of what I’m trying to get at is although the material culture can reveal much about a society’s values and although it serves as an alternative form of history, it is severely limited by its preservation. If the artifact could be preserved a wealth of knowledge can be extracted from the hurdles of interpretation but this very fragility severely limits the scope of children’s history as well as the indigenous and poor masses throughout history.

  8. newdestiny1990
    April 6, 2013 at 11:54 PM

    I found this reading essential to better understand the word artifacts. Art and Fact I find this could be true but sometimes misleading because some facts can be false because of the motive in the creation of the art. So it could mislead or mold the audience opinion on the fact in the way an artist desires to portray the past or present. As the metaphor of the tea pot of being a breast, kind of makes sense because we use the tea pot for hot water for healing our throats and how babies need breast milk for growing. This is unique incite in how to interpret art. I sometimes believe that art imitates life.

    Gabriel Gonzalez

  9. Clifton
    November 9, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    What I find most interesting about material artifacts is that it brings together multiple disciplines in the interpretation of history. Scientific disciplines combine with the arts and humanities to interpret historical relevance to material objects.

Leave a Reply