This is not a new approach to the past. It’s long been pursued by archaeologists, architectural historians, curators and so on. But it has only been taken up by historians relatively recently.*
Historians have something different to bring to this – both in terms of the way in which they understand and imagine the past, and how objects fit into it, and the range of source materials that they use.
If we think of history as the construction of stories about the past, based on reflections on surviving evidence, then the material world can help greatly with this imaginative and creative practice. Conjuring up the places and spaces that historical actors lived, and incorporating these into our narratives can help us create a much fuller picture of past lives.
It is also the case that if confronted with surviving objects, the materiality of these things — their size, shape, texture and weight — can challenge our view of the past and make us think about it in new ways.
When researching the At Home in the Institution project, I examined surviving desks and boxes belonging to nineteenth-century schoolboys. They are often deeply scored with initials and dates, sometimes centuries old.
The ‘toys’ shown in the picture (as desk bureaus at Winchester College were known) is a good example.
The constancy of these marks over time made me think more about what a schoolboy was trying to do when he marked a desk. These initials could transcend the normal passage of time in an institution. Terms passed, pupils moved up the school, and boys came and went. But some left an enduring mark on institutional space, expressing an attachment to the school, but also their presence and an ability to flout its rules.
Curators have, rightly, made this point for some time. But what historians can add here is contextualisation — i.e. understanding the material world in terms of what was happening more broadly in society and culture at that point.
So in the case of the desks, we know that pupils scored them at a time when schools were in flux. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the reform of most public schools and a major rebuilding programme. Amidst change, the boys maintained their attachment to institutional space and a sense of shared tradition. History allows us to see the role of these material objects within a broader school culture.
The other thing that historians bring to the subject is their range of source materials. If we take material culture to mean the significance that people attached to things — how they stood for identities, were associated with particular social practices, or fashioned behaviours — the best way to understand this is to look at contemporary sources that express the thoughts and feelings of people who used spaces and objects.
If we consider the desks – it is only by reading about how they were used and what they meant to the boys, in letters, diaries, and memoirs of school life – that we can really get at their significance. As it happens these ‘toys’ are documented in abundance – letters home in particular stress their importance, as lockable private spaces, where personal goods could be housed. The ‘toys’ were often a little bit of home in institutional space, and boys took pride in decorating them and filling them with ornaments.
If we want to understand the experience of school life in the nineteenth century, the personal space granted to pupils could be very important to them, allowing them to experience some sense of autonomy within the rigidly governed institutional world of the school. The Winchester ‘toys’ were quite distinctive, and offered boys more personal space than schools elsewhere.
*For a summary or recent approaches to this from historians, see Karen Harvey’s Historians and Material Culture.