New material culture course explores the world's history via objects

April 22, 2015 by Sean Bettam - A&S News

When Madonna sang about living in a material world, she wasn’t kidding. But there’s more to things than owning them, and much to be learned if we truly understand the stuff with which we surround ourselves.

That’s what a new course named A History of the World in Objects does. It’s part of Victoria College’s program in material culture, a growing field which considers objects in their social and cultural context, including their preservation, representation, aesthetic and economic use. The course takes advantage of the University of Toronto’s proximity to an array of museums, cultural collections and galleries — even shopping malls — with their abundance of objects and artifacts to study. But students aren’t simply looking at old things in glass cases or reading words on a plaque.

“It’s about teaching students to better understand how an object reflects its maker, its role, and the values of its society,” said Renaissance historian Ken Bartlett, one of the course’s four instructors.

Students learn, for example, to see how the shape and decoration of a piece of Italian maiolica — tin-glazed pottery from the Renaissance — can reveal its cultural models, such as engravings of popular paintings or the text of a classical author or biblical story. In addition, the quality of an object’s painting, glazing and finishing can reflect the elevated social status of its owners.

“I’ve learned a lot about particular objects and how they affect people,” said St. Michael’s College student Kristen Manza. “It’s fascinating how everyday objects become a big part of us and define us. I already look at some things differently.

Manza describes, for example, how a cell phone can often become an extension of its owner, noting that some people even sleep with their phones. “These things have introduced a range of new social behaviours, from the way we use them to avoid awkward situations in public to how we interact with one another when we’re in the company of friends and family.”

The course is co-taught by Bartlett, archaeologist Michael Chazan, anthropologist Ivan Kalmar, and science and technology historian Bert Hall. Each leads a five-week segment with a unique perspective on material culture.

Chazan brought students to the Japan Foundation to explore an exhibit featuring 100 examples of Japanese design in everyday products, and analyse them using methods discussed in class. Kalmar escorted the students through the streets and shops of Yorkville to select an object to describe, while Bartlett led examinations of maiolica at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art.

Through observations of many objects — from clocks and weapons to ancient stone tools and 19th-century books featuring engraved reproductions of cave art — students learned to identify physical evidence of a cultural group in the objects they make and how it reflects the society. Examining a 12-inch decorative plate in the Gardiner’s collection that depicts a pair of lovers embracing, Manza speculates that the piece was likely a gift that people gave to one another, perhaps as a wedding present.

Woodsworth College student Trevor Dunseith welcomed the hands-on approach from the start.

“Professor Chazan had us examine stone tools that were over a million years old and I felt a real sense of continuity with whoever made and used them,” said Dunseith, who is pursuing programs in cultural anthropology, history and material culture. “Some anonymous pre-human hominid put something down for the last time, and a million years later I held it and sketched it. That was kind of amazing.”

For Katie Paolozza, a Woodsworth College student with her eye on graduate school for museum studies, everything about the course aligns with her interests and goals.

“I’m doing a double-major in English and History which are very complementary to the subject matter, but this course addresses socio-anthropological issues in a unique way,” said Paolozza. “It was great to work with actual rare items in our labs.”