What Is Material Culture?
Historian Jules Prown defines material culture as "the study through artifactsAn object made by a human being, typically an item of historical or cultural interest. of the beliefs — values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions — of a particular community or society at a given time." Using material culture can be a powerful way to bring history to life, to awaken students' interest in exploring the past, and to discover connections between the past and the present. Material culture can illuminate nuances of social, political, and cultural history, tell untold stories, and offer insights into the experience of ordinary people whose lives are not otherwise documented, while encouraging students to think critically. In the classroom, objects can be used to spark discussion and research, to augment understanding of a topic, to illustrate concepts that are abstract, and to flesh out and enrich the curriculum.
Teachers can complement their use of primary-source documents with an analysis of material culture. The UCLA Institute on Primary Sources (online at http://ipr.ues.gseis.ucla.edu) notes that primary sources "provide firsthand evidence of historical events. They are generally unpublished materials such as manuscripts, photographs, maps, audio and video recordings, oral histories, postcards, and posters. In some instances, published materials can also be viewed as primary materials for the period in which they were written. In contrast, secondary materials, such as textbooks, synthesize and interpret primary materials." Using material culture, with or without primary-source documents, offers students an exciting window into the past and ways to view the present and consider the future.