The Afterlives of Objects (HIST-374)

historical timepieces

Revisiting Early American and Indigenous Histories through Material Culture

Instructor: Professor Delucia

What can a wooden figurehead once attached to a ship tell us about the past?

How about a small woven basket decorated with colorful floral patterns–made from porcupine quills?

How many stories can you unravel from a spinning wheel, or hear from a ferry horn?

All around us, tangible objects convey deeply layered stories about individuals and communities of other times and places.

This research seminar focuses on material culture, which examines relationships between people and objects. Tangible artifacts like furniture, clothing, ceramics, tools, and buildings give insight into individuals’ and communities’ identities, aspirations, and struggles.

The course approaches early American and indigenous histories through objects, and considers how interdisciplinary methodologies can reveal alternative understandings of the past. It traces changing theories and practices of preservation, curation, and display; shifting conceptions of “heritage” among diverse peoples; and ethical challenges posed by certain types of items held in museums.

These topics can be explored in unique ways through objects held at Mount Holyoke College, including collections at the Art and Joseph Allen Skinner Museums. The course combines hands-on explorations of these campus collections with readings, films, and discussions.

By drawing together multiple streams of evidence—artifacts, historical documents, ethnography— students develop richer understandings of early American and Native American pasts, and their connections to the present. The course also cultivates critical perspectives on museums themselves, and explore future directions for revising and revisiting these culturally significant—and often contested—spaces.

For this upper-level research seminar, students develop original research projects over the course of the semester, based on objects and their historical/cultural contexts.

The seminar also involves connections to local Connecticut River Valley historic sites and collections, and opportunities to develop understandings of potential career paths in fields of public history, preservation, interpretation, and curation.