JAIC 1995, Volume 34, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 187 to 193)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1995, Volume 34, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 187 to 193)




A concern for broader cultural information is compatible with the approach that many researchers, scholars, and curators take. A domain of knowledge referred to as material culture studies tends to evaluate the importance of an object based on what can be learned from its context, the ideas behind it, and the forces that create it. Material culture is studied because it helps us understand the workings of individuals and societies.

Material culture studies began in the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, most notably with General Pitt Rivers in the 1880s (Pearce 1991). However, as anthropology evolved into a social science during the 1920s, material culture studies decreased and became uneven. More recently, the value of artifacts in the study of societal values, attitudes, and ideas has been reaffirmed. Developments in contract archaeology or cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology and major changes in archaeological method and theory emphasize the importance of process interpretation, quantitative analysis, and interdisciplinary efforts (Bell 1985). Likewise, as ethnology studies became more focused on whole communities, collections became assemblages that represent a record of cultural life rather than isolated souvenirs or miscellaneous objects with minimal documentation. In these types of collections there is, at best, an internal coherence that demonstrates understanding. Systematic collections have significantly influenced both the quantity and quality of museum collections. The comparative research value of these objects is based on the quality of their documentation, organization, and protection from deterioration.

Integrating material culture studies with conservation studies offers at least two benefits. First, aspects of material culture studies may assist and guide conservators as we look for ways to improve our methodology for considering nontangible information. Second, conservation observations may illuminate and expand many issues in the study of people that have gone unnoticed.

Common to both disciplines is a need to understand the physical properties of objects. Material culture studies provides a flexible framework for research and discussion of a wide range of information regarding cultural belief, behavior, history, and survival, because there is no assumption that the collection or the culture are fixed. As information is interpreted, reconstructed, reinforced, and qualified through several stages of research, perceptions taken from all periods of the collection's history are valued.

Copyright 1995 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works