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Material culture

Material culture is the physical evidence of a culture in the objects and architecture they make, or have made. The term tends to be relevant only in archeological and anthropological studies, but it specifically means all material evidence which can be attributed to culture, past or present. Material culture studies is an interdisciplinary field telling of relationships between people and their things: the making, history, preservation, and interpretation of objects. It draws on theory and practice from the social sciences and humanities such as art history, archaeology, anthropology, history, historic preservation, folklore, literary criticism and museum studies, among others. Anything from buildings and architectural elements to books, jewelry, or toothbrushes can be considered material culture.

Material culture studies as an academic field grew alongside the field of anthropology. Because of that, it began by studying non-westerners' material culture. All too often it was a way of putting material culture into categories in such a way that marginalized and hierarchized the cultures that they came out of. During the “golden age” of museum going, material culture were used to show the supposed evolution of society: you go from the simple objects of non-westerns to the advanced objects of Europeans. It was a way of showing that Europeans were at the end of the evolution of society, while non-westerners were at the beginning. Eventually, scholars got away from the notion that culture evolved though predictable cycles, and the study of material culture changed to have a more objective view of non-western material culture.

The origins of the field of material culture studies as its own distinct discipline dates back to the 1990s. The Journal of Material Culture only started putting out publications in 1996. However, that in a sense it can be thought of as younger because it ties closely to ethnographic work and collecting habits. Collecting habits go back hundreds of years.



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