Material Culture

Mary Anne Gonzales (University of Waterloo, Canada)

Material culture refers to the materiality, or physicality, of objects informed by their appearance, scent, texture, and sound (if they make any) and the connections these qualities suggest about the significance of objects in culture.

Material culture can include physical features on the land, such as mountains, trees, and roads. Material culture can also take the form of materials humans have adapted to suit their needs. However, material objects can also be natural materials that humans do not modify but integrate into their daily routines (Gaskell & Carter, 2020: 1-2). In the context of literary tourism, the destinations and places associated with an author or literary work are material culture and are commonly referred to as heritage sites.

The objects in these destinations, such as the personal items, property, and family heirlooms of an author, are, in a sense, material culture contained within another material culture. This definition distinguishes objects in literary destinations and sites from artefacts, a term commonly used in archaeology studies. An object found at an archaeological site and for the purposes of archaeological study is considered an artefact. The same object can be considered material culture when it is studied for what its physical features and utilities reveal about the communities that produced and used it. Another term similar to material culture is “ephemera”, which refers to collectable items or memorabilia for one-time use (e.g., movie tickets). As such, ephemera are very specific to collections and human practices of collecting (Oxford Reference). However, ephemera can also be called material culture when the object is placed in the social and cultural context of the time it was created and used to learn more about its significance to the people who owned and used it.

The study of material culture has been inextricably linked to anthropology due to the discipline’s focus on using material culture to understand people and their lived experiences. But before this partnership was solidified, the term “material culture” was used mainly in the Victorian era to refer to artefacts (Buchli, 2020: 2). Cabinets of curiosities were one of the first forms and collective practices that compiled objects based on their materiality and what they revealed about the world. During the Enlightenment, the preoccupation with objects representing different aspects of social life focused on non-Western cultures. As such, objects became instrumental in justifying a universalising schema that considered the West as progressive and non-Western societies as primitive (Buchli, 2020: 3-7). In many ways, the concept of material culture comes from a long tradition that interpreted artefacts as the material form of a nation’s identity.

Current approaches to material culture consider objects as historical sources for historians and anthropologists to understand communities in the past, how they lived, what people valued, and their experiences. Moreover, the study of material culture seeks to understand ideas and beliefs that influenced the creation and use of objects.

In literary studies, material culture pertains to objects that may have been used or served as inspiration by authors to create their literary works. Certainly, texts contained in material culture are a physical feature of the object. However, the text contained in material culture is of primary value when studying a literary work; its survival in a literary form is of equal value to literary scholars. For example, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s manuscript of her novel Rilla of Ingleside has literary value as it is the original manuscript of her acclaimed novel. Similarly, the physicality and existence of the manuscript shed light on Montgomery’s career and Canadian literary culture before the outbreak of World War II (Vance, 2017: 41).

Concerning heritage sites, some ambiguity exists in what material objects can be considered heritage. The reason for this is the role that communities in defining what they consider and value as heritage (McAtackney, 2020: 167). Within this concept, the cultural significance of an object depends upon the value attributed to it by a community. One might argue that “heritage” is merely a formal designation that does not change the cultural significance that a site held for the people of the past who used and built it. Consequently, the concept of “heritage” in relation to material culture points to intersections between multiple cultures that existed at different times.

In current historical approaches, scholars have considered the body as material culture. Stemming from feminist approaches to contextualising the body within a culture of gendered dichotomies and politics, the body is considered material culture in responding to cultural stimuli (Butler, 2002; Ahmed, 2004). In turn, the responses of the body are also grounded in culture. Stimuli can include tangible and intangible responses of the body. For example, a tangible response would be smelling freshly baked bread in a historic kitchen. In contrast, an intangible response could be feeling nostalgia based on what one has read about a particular place. As a form of material culture, the body is witness to cultural experiences. In the context of literary tourism, creating sites that immerse visitors in a physical setting that is nostalgic for the literary works that prompted their visit is of utmost importance to the success of heritage sites.

How to cite this dictionary entry: Gonzales, M.A. (2023). Material Culture. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

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