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Material culture

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Material culture is the physical evidence of a culture in the objects and architecture they make, or have made. The term tends to be relevant only in archeological and anthropological studies, but it specifically means all material evidence which can be attributed to culture, past or present. Material culture studies is an interdisciplinary field telling of relationships between people and their things: the making, history, preservation, and interpretation of objects. It draws on theory and practice from the social sciences and humanities such as art history, archaeology, anthropology, history, historic preservation, folklore, literary criticism and museum studies, among others. Anything from buildings and architectural elements to books, jewelry, or toothbrushes can be considered material culture.


History of the field

Material culture studies as an academic field grew alongside the field of anthropology. Because of that, it began by studying non-westerners' material culture. All too often it was a way of putting material culture into categories in such a way that marginalized and hierarchized the cultures that they came out of. During the “golden age” of museum going, material culture were used to show the supposed evolution of society: you go from the simple objects of non-westerns to the advanced objects of Europeans. It was a way of showing that Europeans were at the end of the evolution of society, while non-westerners were at the beginning. Eventually, scholars got away from the notion that culture evolved though predictable cycles, and the study of material culture changed to have a more objective view of non-western material culture.

The origins of the field of material culture studies as its own distinct discipline dates back to the 1990s. The Journal of Material Culture only started putting out publications in 1996. However, that in a sense it can be thought of as younger because it ties closely to ethnographic work and collecting habits. Collecting habits go back hundreds of years.

Contributors to the field

Leslie White was an American anthropologist known for his advocacy of theories of cultural evolution, sociocultural evolution, and especially neoevolutionism, and for his role in creating the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. He was president of the American Anthropological Association (1964). He wrote The Science of Culture in 1949 in which he outlined schema of the world as divided into cultural, biological, and physical levels of phenomenon. White believed that the development of culture rested primarily on technology and that the history of human technology could be understood through the study of human-produced materials.

American anthropologist James Deetz, known for his work in the field of historical archaeology wrote the book In Small Things Forgotten in 1977 and published a revised and expanded version in 1996. In this work he pioneered the ideas of using neglected substances such as trash pits, potshards, and soil stains to reveal human actions. By analyzing objects in association with their location, the history of that location, the objects they were found with, and not singling out the most valuable or rare, archaeologists can create a more accurate picture of daily life. Deetz looks at the long view of history and investigates the impact of European culture on other cultures across the globe, through an analysis of the spread of everyday objects.

Ian M. G. Quimby's Material Culture and the Study of American Life written in 1978 tried to bridge the gap between the Museum world and the University; between curator and historian. Quimby posits that objects in museums are understood through an intellectual framework that uses non-traditional sources. He also describes the benefits of work on exhibit design as a vehicle for education.

Thomas Schlereth, Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Notre Dame, wrote about philosophies and methods of teaching history outside the traditional classroom. In his book Artifacts and the American Past, Schlereth defines material culture study as an attempt to explain why things were made, why they took the forms they did, and what social, functional, aesthetic, or symbolic needs they serve. He advocates studying photographs, catalogues, maps and landscapes. He suggests a variety of modes for interrogating artifacts.

Gerd Koch, associated with the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, is known for his studies on the material culture of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Santa Cruz Islands. During his early field work in 1951-1952 Koch developed techniques in the recording of culture, including the use of tape-recorders and cinematographic cameras.


Archaeology is the study of humanity through the inferential analysis of material culture to ultimately gain an understanding of the daily lives of past cultures and the overarching trend of human history. An archaeological culture is a recurring assemblage of the artifacts from a specific time and place, most often that has no written record. These physical artifacts are then used to make inferences about the ephemeral aspects of culture and history. With more recent societies, written histories, oral traditions, and direct observations may also be available to supplement the study of material culture.

Beginning in the European Renaissance and the culture's fascination with classical antiquities, the study of artifacts from long-lost cultures has produced many forms of archaeological theory, such as trans-cultural diffusion, processual archaeology, and post-processual archaeology. Additionally, archaeological sub-disciplines have emerged within the field, including prehistoric archaeology, classical archaeology, historical archaeology, cognitive archaeology, and cultural ecology. Recently, a scientific methodology and approach to the analysis of pre-historic material culture has become prevalent with systematic excavation techniques producing detailed and precise results.


Anthropology is most simply defined as the study of humans across time and space. In studying a human culture, an anthropologist studies the material culture of the people in question as well as the people themselves and their interactions with others. An anthropologist looks at the object itself, its context, and the way it was manufactured and used in order to understand the culture in which it featured.

The first anthropologist interested in studying material culture was Lewis Henry Morgan, in the mid-nineteenth century. He is most known for his research on kinship and social structures, but he also studied the effect of material culture, specifically technology, on the evolution of a society. Later in the nineteenth century, Franz Boas brought the fields of Anthropology and Material Culture Studies closer together. He believed that it was crucial for an anthropologist to analyze not only the physical properties of material culture, but also its meanings and uses in its indigenous context, in order to begin to understand a society. At the same time in France, Émile Durkheim wrote about the importance of material culture in understanding a society. Durkheim saw material culture as one of the social facts that functions as a coercive force to maintain solidarity in a society.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, in the twentieth century, included the study of material culture in his work as an anthropologist because he believed that it could reveal a deeper level of structure and meaning not attainable through typical fieldwork. According to Lévi-Strauss, material culture can recall the mind-set of a people, regardless of intervening time or space. Also in the twentieth century, Mary Douglas thought that anthropology was about studying the meaning of material culture to the people that experience it. Marvin Harris, a contemporary of Douglas, put forward the theory of cultural materialism, saying that all aspects of society have material causes.

Art conservation

Art conservation within Material Culture Studies aims to study and preserve objects of cultural significance. Whether it involves collections care, organizing safe and environmentally stable storage conditions for objects, or reassembling a broken vase, art conservation aims to lengthen the lives of objects of cultural heritage for many generations to come. The art conservator often works hand-in-hand with the material culture scholar to study the physical condition of objects, discovering new information about materials, condition, and history. Conservators often utilize analytical techniques, such as X-ray fluorescence, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, and radiography, to identify the materials and structure of objects.

The field of art conservation in the United States possesses a Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. It is widely acknowledged that in order to independently practice within the field of conservation, one must obtain a graduate degree in the field or gain experience through respected apprenticeships. There are four institutions that offer master's degrees in conservation in the United States: The University of Delaware, New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, The University of California, Los Angeles/Getty, and Buffalo State College.

Heritage industry

Museums and other material culture repositories, by their very nature, are often active participants in the heritage industry. Defined as "the business of managing places that are important to an area's history and encouraging people to visit them," the heritage industry relies heavily on material culture and objects to interpret cultural heritage. The industry is fueled by a cycle of people visiting museums, historic sites, and collections to interact with ideas or physical objects of the past. In turn, the institutions profit through monetary donations or admission fees, as well as through the publicity that comes with word-of-mouth communications. This relationship is controversial, as many believe that the heritage industry corrupts the meaning and importance of cultural objects. Often, scholars in the humanities take a critical view of the heritage industry, particularly heritage tourism, believing it to be a vulgar over-simplification and corruption of historic fact and importance. Others believe that this relationship and the financial stability it brings is often the element that allows curators, researchers, and directors to conserve material culture's legacy.

Current production

Some observers advocate intentionally altering the material cultures current civilizations are creating. For example, waste reduction advocates within environmentalism advocate teaching design approaches such as cradle-to-cradle design and appropriate technology. Anti-consumerism advocates encourage consuming less (thus creating fewer artifacts), engaging in more do-it-yourself projects and self-sufficiency (changing the quality of artifacts produced), and localism impacts the geographic distribution and uniformity of artifacts.


Material culture Wikipedia