Is material culture as inherently untrustworthy? I was once at a conference roundtable where one attendee claimed that “Material culture is so elitist, just rich people’s stuff in museums.” Fortunately, a historical archaeologist in the room begged to differ, arguing that archaeology offered a rich record of people who did not necessarily leave written sources behind. When I recently required my students to analyze both a material and a textual source, they concluded that material sources were inherently more difficult to work with than their written counterparts. “Once I describe the object, there’s nothing left to say about it,” one student complained.
I’ve been hearing variations of this argument my entire academic life. As a scholar who both studies and teaches with material culture, I find this reasoning both fascinating and frustrating. Why do so many people, from scholars to students, consider material culture somehow a lesser form of evidence than the written word? New Materialists—the dominant theorists in material culture studies today—have argued that, in academia, the principle of “semantic ascent” devalues the material in favor of the abstract. They contend, and I agree, that there are real drawbacks to focusing on abstractions. A lot of abstract academic work isn’t very approachable to the general public. Why not start with material things, things that surround everyone every day? When historians make public scholarship, shouldn’t we be looking at stuff?
These kinds of questions brought me and my friend and colleague Christopher Allison to the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee to work with Sarah Anne Carter, Jon Prown, and Natalie Wright. Chipstone is dedicated to the study of early American and British material culture, especially furniture and ceramics. In addition to supporting research, art, publication in those fields, they mount innovative exhibits at the Milwaukee Art Museum (one of their fascinating current exhibits, Mrs. M—’s Cabinet, explores #VastEarlyAmerica through objects). Chipstone also makes a broad range of pedagogical videos about material culture and museums, which is what Chris and I were there to do.
Two major influences drove our process. First, we were surrounded by incredible objects, including: a room (seemingly) straight out of the 1970s, a teapot that looked like a head of cauliflower, and even a few characters from Beauty and the Beast. Second, in our current moment, questions about evidence and truth have become, shall we say, a hot topic. Bringing these objects and contexts together, we decided to make a video about material culture as evidence, and called it, “Do Objects Lie?”
Examining Chipstone’s collections, we described various ceramic objects’ attempts to mislead their viewers about gender, age, death, imperialism, and historical memory. A plate made by a tobacconist’s association in London in 1688 presented the Chesapeake as a tobacco-growing Eden full of buxom Native women. A pitcher printed with the Benjamin West painting The Death of General Wolfe left Native people out of the scene entirely. A series of objects idealized images of youth, where early modern people really valued the wisdom of age.
In thinking with these objects, we also had the chance to discuss important concepts in archival theory and museum studies, by pointing out the (often misleading) ways that collections shape our understanding of the past. Most of Chipstone’s collection of decorative arts originated as the possessions of the fabulously wealthy; we encouraged our viewers to think about the kinds of people this collection might, at first glance, render invisible. And while we focused on the ways objects can deceive their viewers, we also worked to push back against the binary of the trustworthy document and suspicious object with which I opened this post.
We hope that “Do Objects Lie?” will be useful to students and teachers in all kinds of fields: history, art history, material culture, and public humanities, to name a few. The video can animate questions about evidence, archival silences, and curatorial practice. How might you use this video in your classroom? I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
 Davis Baird, Thing-Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 8-10.
 Along with a few other colleagues teaching in Sarah’s and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Harvard class, Tangible Things, Chris and I made another video at Chipstone back in 2013, called “This is Not a Chair.” You can read more about that video here.