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  • Anya Naumovic

Material Culture and The Object


Humanity has always surrounded themselves with material objects. Whilst some are more practical, for example, clothing or tools, others more for their aesthetic and decorative value. Society in modern times has become obsessed with the material object, so much so that it is effecting our sustainability of the planet. People acquire objects for many reasons, whether it be a memory of a time or place in history, or for its practical value. Others for its ornamental appearance or sentimentality. The object itself can have significance and meaning despite its outward appearance. The object might hold symbolic or historical reminders and can hold great power within a family. Sometimes the value of the object isn’t considered due to its ‘priceless’ value. Instead, its memory or emotions that are evoked from it, gains its price tag. However, objects can also serve as a painful, reminder or a ‘Memento Mori’. Being able to touch and hold objects creates an intimacy and a bond to the object. Rather than those in exhibitions behind glass. Our identity and personality are formed by the objects around us, from our favourite band tee shirt to brand of drink. The object forms part of our consciousness, individually and collectively.


The actual study of material items is a relatively new field. It’s the studying of material items to understand past and present society. This is especially beneficial to historical study, with little to no ancient, manuscripts, objects allow us to understand the culture better. Historically objects have different meanings for different people. Whilst our pre descendants may have worshipped something, now we culturally distant. Our more ‘relativist’ approach to society is the understanding of the multicultural society we are now in, obvious of the cultural significance. We can study material objects with an interdisciplinary fashion, gaining insight from many different perspectives of study. Taking an object-centred approach to the object, Bernard Herman stated ‘ the study of things broadly speaking can be allocated to two distinct but overlapping approaches. ( Herman 1992) This approach is understanding how the object was made and with what materials. Its physical qualities and description, and its subsequent purpose. Robert Friedel noted that ‘everything is made from something, there are reasons for using the particular materials’ ( Friedel 1993 pp41-50). This method is particularly useful for categorising and defining the object's place within history. Helping people like historians or archaeologists, to define singular eras or artistic movements. Another avenue of studying the object is the ‘object driven approach’. This is the understanding of the objects relevance to society and culture and its usage within said placements. Allowing for information of the objects to change its meaning throughout time and the society that the object was made within. However, the object is not merely passive but takes on the active role in creating meaning and significant value. The object transcends its material weight. And becomes wealthier in meaning. Despite this as previously said the object holds great power, the destruction of the object can be used to harness this, concerning politics, and civil disputes, such as the government bombing of religious buildings.


Our relationship with the objects develops and changes over time. Unprepossessing items suddenly gain value past their parallel economic weight. This then spawns into societal rituals such as family heirlooms, where once an item may have been of significant value, now this has been surpassed by its emotional and sentimentality. The objects much like us pass through a life cycle. The object is first conceived and then manufactured, continuing to be purchased and used, and appreciated, then it finally passes into its disintegration and death. Considerably the museum could be considered an ‘afterlife’ for these objects finding requiem in tourism and appreciation from new generations, perhaps less personally as it once found its purpose. The objects themselves throughout their life cycle are subjected to outer forces that manipulate their fate. In their travels, they gain new identities and meanings, significant to the owner. Our subsequent network of objects that surround us, create our identities too. Yet mostly go unappreciated, or unnoticed. Many of our daily objects allow us to function, and aid us in our daily lives. Other objects also help to mediate our lives. The significance of giving another object to another is often a gesture of care and compassion, creating emotional connections. The importance of certain objects to the individual has both its mutable and physical representations to the owner, something that shouldn’t be undervalued in personal possessions. Objects can be defined to our beings, with one person's belongings differing greatly to the next. Despite this we often find ourselves stereotyping the possible owner of said belongings, due to building up social stigma and negatives stereotypes. People create assumptions by ‘gendering’ objects, such as the pink vs blue debate. It creates a negative assumption of wealth too, perhaps the rise of designer labels, leads the majority of the population in lust and jealousy, of coveted material objects. Also if an object is particularly noteworthy in design or function assumptions are generated about the owner, despite just getting visual outward information.


Overall objects are used differently by different, people throughout time. People haven’t always been defined by objects, this developed seemingly from archaeological and anthropological investigative studies in western Europe and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, succeeded by the opening of the modern museum. Objects testify to the study of material culture, the significance of the man-made object in society and its creator, and then its continual owners throughout time. The study of the object ultimately allows us to interpret past cultures and access history.

Herman, B.L. (1992) The Stolen House, Charlottesville, University

Friedel, R. (1993) ‘Some matters of substance’ in Lubar, S. and Kingery, W.D. (eds) History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, Washington DC and London, Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 41–50.

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