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.