War Material: Perspectives on the Study of the Material Culture of Conflict in the United States and Europe
Over the course of the past decade, historians have increasingly expressed interest in material culture as both a category of analysis and as a teaching tool. And yet, Leora Auslander’s 2005 observation in the AHR remains valid ten years later: “Historians are, by profession, suspicious of things. Words are our stock-in-trade.” Is “material culture” just a buzzword? Or is it the cutting edge of historical research? Have we successfully incorporated the insights it brings to historical inquiry? What actually counts as “material culture”? And where does it fit in our study of the texts with which we are more familiar? This experimental session brings together scholars engaged in research and teaching at the intersection of history and material culture—scholars whose backgrounds include graduate training in Material Culture, Art History, American Studies, History, Fashion, Folklore and Museum Studies. Drawing on material, visual, and textual sources, these scholars illuminate the ways in which material culture affected, and reflected, how people grappled with social, cultural, and material upheavals wrought in war.
This session engages material culture and methodological questions within the context of a particular theme: the history of war. During moments of conflict and upheaval, the meanings communicated by objects are often amplified, contested and politicized in new ways. The papers included in this session deepen our understanding of the materiality of war, offering new insight into the relationships among culture, identity, and conflict. We consider, for example, clothing’s role in provoking violent conflicts in the American Civil War era; the mobilization of objects to enact political agendas during World War I; the role of traditional dress in constructing national and regional allegiance in World War I-era Alsace; the repercussions of collecting dangerous war trophies; and Jewish experiences of loss and reclamation in the Second World War.
Conversations about researching and teaching material culture are less productive when held in the abstract. These presentations, then, are intended to set the stage for a more directed discussion about the opportunities and challenges presented by the use of material culture in historical research and teaching. The session is an experimental, modified roundtable with a teaching component. We will begin with short, visual, “PechaKucha”-style presentations and transition into a modified roundtable discussion with teaching simulation. At the beginning of the roundtable, the audience will be provided with sets of primary sources connected to the presentations, in order to encourage an engaged conversation about interweaving material, visual and textual sources to pose historical research questions and enliven history for students.
We hope this session will draw together scholars who are simply intrigued by material culture, as well as those who are well versed in its study. We expect this experimental format to both stimulate a discussion between the audience and panel participants, and simulate a teaching technique that has proven to be effective and can be easily incorporated into the classroom. Session attendees will also be provided with handouts that include resources for incorporating material culture into their own classes.