Skip to content
You are viewing information for England.  Change country.

Making sense of things: an introduction to material culture

This module is designed to follow our key introductory Level 1 module, The arts past and present (AA100), which you are strongly advised to study first. It introduces you to the study of objects, or material culture, in both the past and present from a variety of different perspectives. These include heritage studies, art history, classical studies, history, philosophy and religious studies. Making sense of things will prepare you for Level 2 study, giving you opportunities to develop a range of critical and analytical skills within the context of this exciting new subject.

Modules count towards OU qualifications

OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

Browse qualifications in related subjects


Module code
Study level
1 7 4
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
See Am I ready?

Student Reviews

“I really didn't enjoy this module at all. I found the content to be largely irrelevant and totally uninspiring. Tutorials...”
Read more

“I enjoyed this course good range of topics from the study of Greek vases to anthropology good grounding to move...”
Read more

Request your prospectus

Explore our subjects and courses

Request your copy now

What you will study

The first week introduces you to the study of material culture. You will look at why objects are studied in humanities, as well being introduced to some basic approaches to the subject. During this week you will also make your first contact with your tutor and other students via online forums.

Most of the teaching, as throughout the rest of the module, is by case studies, both online and in a printed Study Companion. The text-based materials are also accompanied throughout by audio-visual material.

The rest of the module is presented in three books, each covering four weeks of study, and separated by assessment weeks. At the end of Book 2, there is a week of group work, mainly online, in which you will carry out research and work with fellow students towards a tutor-marked assignment (TMA). You will be expected to study for about fifteen hours a week.

Book 1: Approaches

The first book emphasises key skills applicable across the humanities, and key concepts which you will apply through the module. You will explore the origins of the ‘idea’ of material culture and approaches to describing, classifying and interpreting objects, drawing on the disciplines of archaeology, history, anthropology and ancient history. The first chapter introduces the key concepts of ‘object biography’ and the ‘life cycle of things’, by considering how late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century museums attempted to order and classify objects from across time and space. Chapter Two develops skills of close observation and description, considering different ways of writing about objects. Chapter Three broadens out to consider ways in which the historic, social and physical (or archaeological) context of objects can aid in interpreting them, focusing on the House of Menander at Pompeii as a case study. The final chapter focuses on classification, with reference to the study of ancient Athenian vases.

Book 2: Contexts

The second book emphasises the critical significance which an understanding of material culture has played in our developing understanding of history. You will look at the way scholars have used the study of objects and their contexts to shed light on a specific period of European history, from about 1200 to 1700. In particular, the focus is on the place of objects in the wider culture of the age and how they illuminate our understanding of religious and intellectual developments during the Reformation and Renaissance. In the first two chapters, you will study the central role that sacred objects played in the everyday lives of Europe’s Catholic population and the extreme reaction to them in Protestant circles, culminating in the mass destruction of much of the material culture of the medieval past during the Reformation. In the final two chapters, you will examine how technical developments in creating objects encouraged new ways of thinking about and understanding the world. This will be through case studies concerned with the origins of the printed book and the preparation of anatomical specimens.

Book 3: Afterlives

The unifying theme of the final book is the afterlives of objects, by which we mean what happens to objects when they acquire new uses or meanings. You will examine what happens to objects when they move from one social and historical context to another, and therefore the changes in the way these objects are understood. You will explore specific questions of power, ‘commodification’, memory and ownership and more general questions of change and transformation. Chapters One and Two examine religious and secular ‘relics’ and their contagious power; what happens when religious objects are transformed by global tourism; and whether tourism diminishes the ‘sacredness’ or ‘authenticity’ of such objects. Chapter Three explores issues of memory and absence with reference to Holocaust museums. In Chapter Four you will consider philosophical issues surrounding the ownership and display of objects. In particular, moral issues that arise in relation to objects removed from their place of origin, and in relation to bodies and parts of bodies collected by museums.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material, mark and comment on your assignments, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. You are strongly encouraged to take advantage of group tutorials (in a local study centre and online) and any day schools that might be arranged in your area.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in April 2014 when it will be available for the last time. From October 2014 Voices and texts (A150) and this module are being merged into one 60-credit module Voices, texts and material culture (A105).


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


Level 1 modules provide core subject knowledge and study skills needed for both higher education and distance learning, to help you progress to modules at Level 2.

As this module builds on the skills and knowledge developed through the study of The arts past and present (AA100), we strongly advise you to study AA100 first.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.

Preparatory work

We strongly recommend that you study The arts past and present (AA100) before registering for Making sense of things, as it builds on the skills and knowledge gained from studying that module.

However, if you have successfully completed one of our previous introductory Level 1 modules in arts and humanities – such as A103 (now discontinued) – this may be suitable preparation for you to study this module.

Our Moving on to A151 website highlights key sections of the module and will help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge and skills to study this module.


Start End Fee
- - -

No current presentation - see Future availability

This module is expected to start for the last time in April 2014.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later - OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your annual fees and spreads them out over up to a year, enabling you to pay your fees monthly and walk away with a qualification without any further debt. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in 10 OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

For more information about employer sponsorship speak to an adviser or request a call back.

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Gift vouchers

You can pay for part or all of your tuition fees with OU gift vouchers. Vouchers are currently available in the following denominations, £10, £20, £50 and £100. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. You may, for example wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or request a call back.

Note: Your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is based upon current details for  year 1 August 2014 to 31 July 2015.
This information was provided on 22/07/2014.

What's included

Module books, other printed materials, DVD videos, website.

You will need

A DVD video player.

If you have a disability

One of the learning outcomes of the module is to enable you to develop your skills of independent observation and analysis of particular objects found throughout the study materials. Students whose disability or additional requirement means they are unable to do this are likely to experience difficulty in achieving this learning outcome. Blind students who once had useful sight may be able to draw upon this experience. All images used in this module are available in electronic format and can be magnified within the limits of standard computer applications. Textual descriptions will also be available but using these could conflict with the required learning outcome. Students who are concerned about their ability to meet the learning outcomes are encouraged to contact the Student Registration & Enquiry Service for advice before registering for this module. Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

Elements of the module are delivered through a website and include the use of online forums for group working. If you use specialist hardware or software to assist you in using a computer or the internet and have concerns about accessing this type of material you are advised to talk to the Student Registration & Enquiry Service about support which can be given to meet your needs.

If you have concerns about taking this module or the support that you would have, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service for advice.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.