Last week we learned that the study of objects can open new avenues of study for historians.  The study of material culture can lead to a diverse variety of new questions that contribute to historical scholarship.  This is demonstrated in the article on a field hockey dress by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Gaskel.  In looking at two athletic uniforms for women twenty years apart from one another, a change can be observed as the design and focus of the uniform shifted from modesty to athleticism.  Ulrich and Gaskel note that the physicality of the uniform is crucial in understanding women’s experience participating in collegiate athletics due to the ability the object has to connect to a personal and emotional historical narratives.  By studying the object, we can find the answer to key questions such as, who made the uniform, who wore the uniform, how was this item different from ones made before it, what does this tell us about ideas on gender and education at the time, etc.  Ulrich makes use of objects to understand cultural, political, and economic trends in history again in her book, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, which is worth a read.

Because material culture has such an opportunity to create personal and emotional historical narratives, contributing to larger historical arguments, it is important to address questions on methodology.  What is the best way to observe, study, research, interpret, and share objects? Do detailed descriptions such as measurements take away from the narrative of the object? How do we address the objectivity question when studying physical objects?  How can we be aware of our own cultural biases? What are the ethical concerns of studying potentially sensitive objects? While there is no one single “right way” to study material culture, there are several widely accepted principles to keep in mind while doing so.    At the most basic level, the study of material culture should include observations, descriptions, interpretation, and evaluation.

In the article, A Museum of Fashion is More Than a Clothes Bag, author Valerie Steele talks about one of her professors, Jules Prown and the impact he had on the study of material culture.  According to Prown, objects should be actively used as evidence rather than passively as illustrations in the formulation of historical arguments.  Prown’s methodology includes description (recording internal evidence), deduction (interaction between the object and its perceiver), and speculation (framing hypotheses, asking questions for external research).

Similarly, in the article by Joan Severa and Merrill Horswill, three dresses were analyzed in a way that combined existing methodologies.  In doing so, Severa and Horswill present a very analytical study that dissects the dresses into a number of components.  In this method, the dresses were thoroughly measured, the fibers were defined, dyes were identified, and the method of their creation was explained.  Though this study was not as personal as Ulrich and Gaskel’s article on the field hockey dress, I can see how this could be a useful method for collecting data and cataloging historical objects.  Though Severa and Horswill did not necessarily provide personally compelling narratives behind these dresses, they did extract a lot of useful information that could be taken and used further to understand historical trends.