Changing ideas on material history

I have always enjoyed what I thought of as material culture in history, and through my history units so far have persistently been drawn to the study of objects, art, buildings – tangible things. From the decoding of erotic messages in medieval mirrors as gifts of courtly love, to the subtle political alliances that imbued 18th century court dress, the deciphering and interpreting of the stuff of a particular period, has always floated my academic boat.
This process of investigating and drawing inferences from material objects and tangible items, and using them as primary sources, has been somewhat complicated in my mind in this unit through the distinction between private and public history.
Rosenzweig and Thelen’s examination of people engaging with their private history every day through the use of family photo albums and heirlooms, but not necessarily viewing this process as “history” has intrigued me. In being told the story of my mother’s immigration to Australia, and looking at the “vintage” luggage tags from the three month journey, am I engaging in history or nostalgia? If I viewed luggage tags from the same era in the Immigration Museum of Melbourne, surely that counts as history?
On reflecting upon this question, I realised that to date, my university history studies have always have focused on periods and societies from at least two centuries ago, meaning I have never really had to consider this before. Of course a 16th century tapestry is a historical artifact, but what about the quilt that my mother was given by her aunts, and still sits on our couch at home?
One of our class speakers, Mark Dunn, inspired me with his inclusion of images and material objects (like advertisements) in a public history context, and the idea of curating the material culture of private individuals and establishments and presenting them for public consumption, is something I would love to further explore.
In her book Private Lives, Public History, Anna Clark explores the relationship between Australians and their heirlooms, family photographs and stories. In questioning whether “granny’s embroidery” is really history, and indeed, whether people feel more connected to these tangible familial memories than the history they learn in class, Clark has me wondering if my engagement in the objects themselves, is really the deciding factor. If I want to catalogue and display the luggage tags, to investigate the (somewhat horrid) 70’s style influences of the quilt, surely the question of whether it is an exercise in history, or nostalgia, doesn’t really matter.

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