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Questioning a material artefact

Viccy Coltman re-visits the concept of material culture using a pictogram to orientate students and question material culture.00:04 Last time, I asked
So last time, I asked the question what is material culture. And I want to revisit that, and think a little bit about how we move from the theory of material culture to the practise. That’s one way of putting it. So it’s all very well having a definition of what is material culture, but then how do we apply it to an object? So what I’m thinking about is I’m thinking about the bridge that takes us from the theory to the object. And what I’ve done in my work is I’ve come up with this working pictogram, which is indebted to previous scholars of material culture whose work has been really important to my own.
These are scholars like Jules Prown, Marcia Pointon, CF Montgomery, all of whom use the pictogram to orient a student into material culture study. So my own pictogram is called Questioning a material artefact. And very importantly, what this questioning does is to put the object at the very centre of the inquiry. And then a series of questions and categories circulate around and about the object. So the object is always the core focus of the material culturalist’s endeavour. So at the top, we have what I’ve called objecthood. OK, so what on Earth does that mean?
So I ask a series of questions of the object, and I’m not going to go through all of them, because you’ll see this pictogram on your screen, but I’ll just give you a guide through it, some kind of orientation. So you ask what is it? Is it a glass, is it a snuff box, is it a painting, what does it represent? What is it made of? So is it oil on canvas? Is it glass? Is it– some of it could be ceramics, it could be furniture. What size and/or weight is it? So size is really important in material culture study, and what date is it?
So these are the kind of foundational questions around what I think of as the objecthood of the object. And although that’s a bit of a mouthful, it gives us a way to start to engage with the object. So from there in our pictogram, there are two alternative and always complementary roots. One of them is to think about the production of the object. Who made it? Is there a maker? OK, that’s one avenue of inquiry. Is it signed? Often with paintings, they are signed. If not, can it be attributed to a hand? Where was it made? So is there a provenance, is there a workshop, or a geographical location?
And then there are other questions around it, including the idea of the autonomy of the object. Is it the only one, or is this an object that was serially reproduced, or what we might call mass produced? So on the other side of that pictogram are a series of questions around the object’s consumption. So on the one hand, we have its production, who made it, on the other hand, we have who owned it. And if they bought it, how did they acquire it? How much did it cost? What was its social function? Where was it used or displayed, and was it a static or mobile object?
So often objects have more than one context, and can we reconstruct some of those contexts? So the final block is to do with the afterlife or the afterlives of an object. So often, objects have more than one afterlife. They might go through various different hands, they might end up in a museum collection. So my first question is where is it now? And as I say, often it might be it’s in the National Museum of Scotland. How is it presented and/or displayed? What condition is it in? So often objects are– particularly historical objects– have been subject to the vagaries of time and use, and they might need to be conserved. What is its economic value?
So again, here we could bring in the whole idea of the market place and collectors and inflated prices, in some instances. What is it worth, and to whom? So these are not necessarily a series of exhaustive questions that we’re going to ask of our object, but these are a series of questions that enable us to begin to engage with the object in an informed way and to try and understand the object within its historical context.
Viccy Coltman moves from the theory of material culture, covered in the previous step ‘What is ‘material culture’?, to the practice.
She asks a series of questions about and around an object to put it at the centre of our incipient enquiries, which will assist us as we move forwards.
Viccy focuses on four key themes around an object: objecthood, production, consumption and afterlife.
You might like to revisit this video later in the course.
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