Last week, our Studies in American Material culture class met at the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University.  There we met curator Clare Sauro, who had several items pulled for us to look at. Our semester assignment was to pick one item to study intensively for the next several weeks with the intention of producing a written history for it.  The item I chose to commit to for the rest of the semester was a women’s athletic suit from 1919. I chose this item because I have a feeling there may be an interesting story behind it which may reveal useful information about the cultural context in which it was used.  

After reading and become acquainted with key readings in the study of material culture, I have devised a plan that I hope will work well for me and my object.  Though there is no single correct way to study material culture, all of the methods we have read about emphasize the importance of I have constructed this plan primarily by combining the works of Jules David Prown and E. McClung Flemming while adding some details explained by Charles F. Montgomery.  

Prown’s Methodology
1. Description – recording internal evidence of the object
2. Deduction – interpreting the interaction between object and perceiver
3. Speculation – framing hypotheses and questions which lead to external evidence for testing and resolution

Flemming’s Methodology
1. Identification – factual description
2. Evaluation – judgement
3.  Cultural analysis – relationship of the artifact to its culture
4. Interpretation – the significance

My Methodology

  1. Observation
    For me, observation should be the first step taken before anything else.  In our case, we did this already during our visit to Drexel.  I think it is important to be able to observe the item without jumping into in depth description or thought.  This is a time to become familiar with the object and the way it looks.
  2. Description
    Before we jump into any thoughts or speculations it is important to revisit the object and make detailed observations about it.  This step should include writing a description of the physical appearance of the item, noting how many pieces it has and how it could be worn.  This is also a time to write down the measurements of the item, noting colors, textures, and materials used.  It should also be recorded whether there are any tags or identifiers. Note the brand if possible, the technique and style of its manufacturer, determine whether it was hand made or mass produced.
  3. Speculation
    After you have gathered and written down all of the descriptive information about the object, it is appropriate to make speculations based off the information you have.  This does not necessarily have to be written down, but needs designated time.  These speculations can be useful for formulating questions that will aid research.
  4. Deduction
    After much speculation, it is important to take a step back and identity the relationship between the object and the perceiver.  Recognizing in relation to the object can help expose potential blind spots and biases we may hold.  One of the most simple is the variation in cultural context we belong to versus that of the object.  It is also important to take note of how we experience the object and what type of response, if any, it invokes.
  5. Identification
    Now that the object has been investigated thoroughly, it is time to bring in outside sources to help identify the object.  This would be a good time to verify the object’s authenticity and intended function.  For the purposes of this project, it will be useful to investigate outside sources such as the manufacturers and or owners.  Information may be found in newspapers, advertisements, photographs, diaries, etc.
  6. Cultural Analysis
    The next step is to place the object in its cultural context.  This would be useful time to gain base knowledge of the context in which the object would have lived, such as geographical and local history, culture, religious influences, ideologies, etc.  How does the object compare to similar ones from the same time and from previous years?
  7. Interpretation
    Finally, it is time to compile all of the information gathered through the study and to make claims about the object’s historical significance or worth.  Does the object allow us to observe any historical change?  What does this object tell us about the people, places, ideas of the time?  What can this tell us about the present?  Is the object worth preserving and why?