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Thinking through things

Do things record the actions and intentions of the past, and might they reveal aspects of history otherwise invisible?

Dr Caroline Goodson

In recent years, historians have increasingly turned to new evidence to evaluate the past, in particular the material world.

Linen cushion cover © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Linen cushion cover embroidered with polychrome silks in darning, back and satin stitch, circa 1701–1801. Unknown maker, Greek islands, Northern Sporades, Skyros. Reproduced by kind permission of The Fitzwilliam Museum.

This move towards materiality has included consideration of material qualities and realities of the documents which have long constituted evidence for a certain kind of research: what is the shape of the textual record and by what forms has it come down to us? It has also opened up new questions about how objects, the built environment, and landscapes might complement or challenge our understanding about the past as derived from the textual record: do things record the actions and intentions of the past, and might they reveal aspects of history otherwise invisible? Beyond things themselves, historical research focused on materiality might examine how consumption and production, waste and want might cast new light on historical agents and change. Historians at Cambridge have been blazing a trail in these areas already for many years through research projects and publications from members of the Faculty as well as teaching initiatives. Research and teaching on materialism, past materiality, and material culture has been developed by individuals as well as by Faculty groups working collaboratively with each other and with Cambridge’s museums and collections.

The Faculty of History has created a new Research Cluster for 2019 called ‘Material Histories.’ Given the range of approaches currently pursued by members of the Faculty there is great potential for innovating ways to think about material histories.

Soiuz–Apollo space badge © Cambridge University Library. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC 3.0)
Soiuz–Apollo space badge(CCA.54.1090) Soviet lapel pin commemorating one of the most symbolic technological achievements of the twentieth century. The badge shows the Soviet and US flags above their respective spacecraft and their names. Reproduced by kind permission of Cambridge University Library.

The Faculty also encourages collaboration across subject groups and conventional divides between sub-fields. The Research Cluster currently includes around 20 members of the Faculty from each subject group and will build bridges between political, intellectual, social, cultural, and economic approaches to history. Through a series of focused workshops, visiting historians who work on materials and materialism will come to Cambridge (or participate via video conference) to present and discuss their methods and research, share skills, and develop project ideas within the Cluster.

Cluster members include: Andrew Arsan, Arthur Asseraf, Julie Barrau, Melissa Calaresu, Hank Gonzalez, Caroline Goodson, Julia Guarneri, Mary Laven, Scott Mandelbrote, Renaud Morieux, Sarah Pearsall, Helen Pfeifer, Ulinka Rublack, Sujit Sivasundaram, Emma Spary, Felix Waldmann, Alex Walsham, Paul Warde.