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HIST 4025/6025 History of Material Culture Spring 2022: Tips, Tricks, Tools, How-tos

Resources and information for using UGA special collections materials for 4025 research projects

Help--What is Material Culture?

Some links to texts discussing the meanings and uses of material culture and its uses for research:

"What is Material Culture," Center for Material Culture Studies, University of Delaware  

"Unpacking Evidence, What is Material Culture?"   Daniel Waugh for Center for History and New Media, George Mason University

Twenty Questions to Ask an Object Workshop Video In the spirit of fun,  American Studies Association's Material Culture Caucus  workshop participants  challenged workshop participants to play a variant of the classic game, “Twenty Questions.” Videographer Mark Escribano documented the event.

"Twenty Years, Twenty Questions to Ask an Object"  More information on the American Studies Association's Material Culture Caucus  workshop

Help--A Short Video about Material Culture

Help--Researching and Requesting UGA special collections materials

For general help with searching and browsing the collections located in special collections, you have several options: 

  • Browse the Special Collections Requesting Help Guide online
  • Watch a demo of the process here
  • Visit the special collections reference desk located on the 3rd floor of the Special Collections Building. Hours are 8-5 Monday-Friday.

Help--Exploring and Analyzing UGA special collections materials

While You Research

Give yourself enough time to make progress.  It often takes a long time to go through all the materials that you hope are relevant to your topic. Plan to visit when you can spend at least an hour of concentrated work. 

Remember to gather citation information as you look through materials in the Russell Research Room.  This will save time with citations later. Note the following items:

  • Name of Collection
  • Name of the Series
  • Name of the Folder
  • Name of the Item

Tips & Tricks--Reading Cursive Handwriting

Palaeography: reading old handwriting
1500 - 1800
A practical online tutorial

Palaeography is the study of old handwriting. This web tutorial will help you learn to read the handwriting found in documents written in English between 1500 and 1800.

At first glance, many documents written at this time look illegible to the modern reader. By reading the practical tips and working through the documents in the Tutorial in order of difficulty, you will find that it becomes much easier to read old handwriting. You can find more documents on which to practise your skills in the further practice section.

Tool Box: Questions to Help Make Sense of Material Culture Objects

Analytical Tools for Researching  Material Culture Objects

Twenty Questions to Ask an Object ( Revised Version) Two principal entities at play: the object and the inspector. A third component is the setting in which the inspection takes place. The initial questions guide close scrutiny of the object. Try to answer them through inspection only. Resist the temptation to quickly identify and categorize the object, or to make assumptions about its purpose or meaning. As you make inferences about the object, consider the kinds of cultural knowledge that they are based upon. As the questions begin to address the object in larger contexts, answering them will most likely require other modes of inquiry alongside inspection.

1)  What are the object’s sensory properties?
a.  Sight: Line and shape (two-dimensional); form (three-dimensional); color (hue, light, dark); texture (reflective, matte)
b.  Touch: Form and shape (round, angular); texture (smooth, rough); temperature (cold, warm); density (hard, soft)
c.  Sound: Consider what sounds the object makes when manipulated
d.  Smell
e.  Taste, if appropriate

2)  What are the object’s physical properties?
a.  Materials (wood, stone, plastic; identifying materials may not be possible through inspection alone)
b.  Size (length, width, depth, volume)
c.  Weight
d.  Number of parts and their organization (symmetrical, asymmetrical, distinct, merged)
e.  Inscriptions (printed, stamped, engraved)

3)  Does the object appear to be human made?
a.  If it is human made, does it show evidence of natural processes? (oxidation, decay)
b.  If not human made, does it show evidence of human intervention? (modification, wear)

4)  How does the object interact
a.  With human bodies?
b.  With other species?
c.  With its surroundings?

5)  How is the object oriented?
a.  Unidirectional?
b.  Does it have an obvious front, back, bottom, or top?
c.  Does it have open and closed parts? If, for example, it appears to have a “handle” or a “lid,” how do you know?

6)  What is the object’s purpose or possible purposes?
7)  Does the object prompt some kind of action or performance? 
a.  Individual
b.  Social

8)  What is your emotional response to the object? What might it evoke for others?

9)  How was the object produced?
a.  Techniques
b.  Social structures

10)  Who made the object and under what circumstances?
a.  Was it made by one or more individuals?
b.  Was the maker also the designer?
c.  When was it made?
d.  Where was it made?

11)  What is the object’s history?
a.  Who owned and/or used it?
b.  When?
c.  Where?

12)  Is the object part of a group of objects? If so, how?
a.  Is it part of a genre? If so, what features does it share with other objects of its genre?
b.  What is its spatial relationship to other objects?
c.  Does it have a metaphorical relationship to other objects? If so, how?
d.  Is it part of a collection, whether personal or institutional?

13)  How does, or did, possession of the object relate to individual and/or group identity (e.g., class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nation, religion)?

14)  Does the object relate to a set (or sets) of beliefs (e.g., spiritual, ideological)? If so, how?

15)  Is the object part of a system (or systems) of exchange (e.g., commodity, gift)? If so, how?

16)  What is its value (e.g., economic, cultural) and how might you locate it within systems of value?

17)  Does the object reflect and/or structure human agency? If so, how?

18)  What is the object’s contemporary context and relevance?

19)  What is special or distinctive about the object?

20)  How would you interpret it to others? What questions would you ask?

Tool Box: Finding the Words that Describe "Stuff"

One of the most important things to know when you are searching for material culture in archival and museum databases are the variety of terms used by cataloguers scholars to describe the physicality of well, stuff.  

The University of Georgia special collections (the Russell Library and the Hargrett Libraries use "artifact" generally to describe objects that are part of their respective collections.

There are also many specific types of artifacts and archivists also use those terms to decribe specific objects. Some examples include memorabilia, magnetic media, graphic works, textiles, or visual works.  Archives may also use the common terms that the person or organization used to refer to the item such as souvenirs, gifts, keepsakes, wallets, bumperstickers, memento mori, flags, shoes, pins, costumes, and even occassionally, miscellaneous.  

Follow the link below for some thesauri that will help you figure out what to call things accurately when you are searching for them and describing them: 

The Getty Research Institute Vocabularies


Tool Box: Guides for Approaching Historical Research

Historical research can be incredibly exciting and interesting, but getting started can be daunting--especially if you are starting from scratch in coming up with a topic. 

In general, the most important thing to remember is that getting started early is essential.  Give your self time to browse, connect, reimagine, and revise.  Below are some links walk you through steps for developing a topic and writing an interesting paper.  These aren't the only way to approach the work, but they give you a place to start.  Remember to consult your professor for big questions or concerns and to re-read the assignment.

Learning to Do Historical Research: A Primer
How to Frame a Researchable Question
Created by historian William Cronin and his graduate students to help undergraduates develop research topic in environmental history, but ideas and concepts are useful for any area of historical research.

Stages of A Historical Research Project
Independent project on the Web. offers a streamlined outline for research processes that may be a good quick reference tool